It’s the middle of October. The leaves are changing colors, baseball playoffs are under way, and Hispanic Heritage month – celebrated each year from September 15 to October 15 – just came to close. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the rich history and the centuries’-worth of contributions the Hispanic community – a diverse community with roots in Mexico, the Caribbean, Spain and Central and South America – has made to this country.
We first began celebrating Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968, and in 1988 the observance of Hispanic Heritage Month was enacted as law by the U.S. Congress. But the impact of this country’s Hispanic community has never been greater – and the importance of promoting success for Hispanic learners has never mattered more – than right now.
Today, Hispanics are the largest, youngest and fastest-growing minority group. Yet our college attainment rates are among the lowest. A college education continues to be the ticket to the middle class, and improving educational outcomes for the Hispanic community is vitally important for the common good. In America, we fall or rise together. The success of Hispanic students is directly tied to the success of our democracy, and our ability to compete in a global economy.
President Obama’s North Star Goal – that this country will again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world – depends on the success of every single student, whatever his or her background or circumstance. The President understands the crucial role of the Hispanic community and has continued to expand opportunities for them and all students. Whether it is our work through the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, the My Brother’s Keeper initiative or our support of Hispanic Serving institutions, this Department is committed to supporting this community and foster its educational success.
And we’ve seen encouraging signs of progress. The Hispanic high school dropout rate among 16-24 year olds fell from 28 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2011. Hispanic college enrollment has grown by more than 1.1. million students. In fact, college enrollment is up more for Hispanics than any other group. In 2012, the enrollment rate among Hispanics 18-24 years old was over 49 percent, up from 31 percent in 2002.
Still, there’s more we must do. As a country our high school graduation rate has reached an all-time high of 80 percent, but the rate for Hispanics still lags behind. In addition, African American and Hispanic students account for 40 percent of high school youth, yet make up just 25 percent of students taking advanced placement classes. Hispanic youth are also disproportionately represented in school-related arrests and disciplinary actions.
During the Department’s kick-off event for National Hispanic Heritage Month, Secretary Duncan said, “we need to make sure that the opportunities we offer every single child in this country are the opportunities we would want to offer our own children.”
This call to action comes at a watershed moment: for the first time in history, a majority of our nation’s public school students are minority students. Hispanic students alone make up 25 percent of all public school students in our schools.
Although Hispanic Heritage month is over, educating Hispanic learners – and all students – is important all year round. That’s the one sure way to reach our North Star goal, preserve the promise of the American Dream, and have the world’s best educated, most competitive workforce.
Robert Gomez is the director of higher education outreach at the U.S. Department of Education, and the son of Mexican immigrants.