Community Development

Unlocking the Promise of Latinos in America

July 4, 2015  • Woody Hunt

Why does the growth of the Latino demographic matter? Why am I as a non-Hispanic trying to help answer that question? My interest goes back 15 years to when I, as a member of the University of Texas Board of Regents, was charged with developing a long range plan for the university system of 15 campuses and 200,000 students. From that came a deep understanding of the demographic change the state faces — soon to become a minority/majority state, then a state where Latinos are the largest ethnic group by 2025, and finally a state with a Hispanic majority in 2035. Next, was a study of historical income and educational attainment levels in my hometown of El Paso, Texas. In the 1950 census El Paso had an educational level 20% above and an income level 14% above the rest of the state. This was higher than Austin, San Antonio, Phoenix, or Tucson. However, by the 2000 census our educational attainment level had fallen to 70% as compared to the rest of the state and, not surprisingly, our income was also at 70% of the state average. We were far behind our fellow Southwestern cities.

Will Texas follow El Paso in education and income trends? Since the late 1990’s I have been engaged at the state level in a number of boards, commissions, and committees — both private and public — trying to help answer this question. My involvement includes chairing the Texas Select Commission on Higher Education and Global Competitiveness in 2009 and I am currently chairing the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Strategic Planning committee, which is charged with developing a State Higher Education Plan for 2015 to 2030. The answer to the question is that today, the State of Texas is, much like El Paso was, in a race between demographic change and closing the gap between Anglos and Hispanics in terms of post-secondary attainment. And we are losing the race.

Notwithstanding a significant increase in state annual degree production since 2000 — from 116,000 to over 250,000 — and a highly competitive economy which now imports almost 100,000 degree holders every year, our workforce is no better educated today than it was 30 years ago. In terms of Anglo, African Americans and Asian Americans, the State of Texas outperforms national averages in degree attainment.  For Latinos, however, we are 12% below national averages. Six years after high school, Hispanics are currently attaining a post-secondary credential at a rate that is 46% of Anglos. Yet the Anglo population in the State of Texas is declining in all age categories except those over 65 and who are out of the workforce. So, our workforce growth is over 100% minority, with Latinos representing over 80% of the growth. Our future state competitiveness depends on closing this gap with the correlation between educational attainment and income being over 80%. Remember El Paso.

At our current rate of closing the education gap, our state incomes will decline not only in a relative sense (as compared to other states or nations) but in absolute constant dollar terms. We will be poorer in 2030 than we are today. Yet, while I would argue this is clearly our state’s biggest challenge, in every board or commission or committee focused on this issue there is an underrepresentation or absence of Latino leadership. This failure to garner participation from leaders who match the challenge is amazing to me, particularly in this day and age. This conversation needs to occur with more Hispanic leadership in engaged advocacy around the table. Until this condition changes, where we have significant Latino representation in our societal leadership broadly defined, the integration of the Latino into American society will not reach its full potential.

In El Paso, where Hispanic leadership is very engaged, our Latino post-secondary attainment rate is now 40% above the state.

The Aspen Institute Latinos and Society program was launched to focus and catalyze leadership on this very gap, with the long-term goal of full Latino participation in all levels of American society. A powerful initial step in this evolution is raising awareness of the problem. We’re enlisting journalists and thought leaders to help in this cause. We believe they are critical to influencing thinking at the highest levels of institutional and informal power, be it government, universities, public education, business, and the professions, to alter the status quo. We are working to amplify the voice of the significant and existing leadership within the Hispanic demographic to fully engage and build our society — not as a bystander, but as an ‘architect’, ‘developer’, and ‘opinion maker,’ alongside those who, today, are the prevailing order due to wealth, work, or wisdom.

  • Their numbers confirm it.
  • Their standing establishes it.
  • The conversation and debates require it.
  • We all are invested in the success of the Hispanic cohort because it is, ultimately, our success as well.

We must have this reflection highlighted in our societal mirror now so together our nation can fulfill its true potential.