A Growing Struggle

By John Wahala on June 24, 2010

The Pew Hispanic Center’s recent analysis of educational attainment data from the Census Bureau's 2008 American Community Survey finds that only one in ten Hispanic high school dropouts has a General Educational Development (GED) credential, the lowest among any major race/ethnic group.

As the author Richard Fry notes, this is significant since Hispanics have the highest dropout rates. "Some 41% of Hispanics ages 20 and older in the United States do not have a regular high school diploma, versus 23% of comparably aged blacks and 14% of whites.” This disparity is driven by the foreign born – 52 percent of adult Hispanic immigrants have dropped out of high school.

These numbers are also significant given the large and rapidly-expanding size of the Hispanic population. "As of 2008, there were 29 million Hispanics ages 20 and older, 41% are native born and 59% are foreign born." Overall there are approximately 47 million Hispanics in the United States and 38 percent of them are immigrants.

Continuous Hispanic immigration obscures the progress of Hispanics already here, who are more likely to obtain a GED the longer they reside in the country. But educational progress is slow and is facilitated by an unlikely institution – the penal system, which provides those incarcerated with preparation and testing. "Hispanics whose highest education is a GED are much more likely to be currently incarcerated than are other Hispanic adults." Even among native-born Hispanic dropouts, "only 21% have a GED."

Perhaps the reason so few earn their GED is because it provides little immediate benefit. Fry shows that Hispanics with GEDs who work full-time have roughly the same unemployment rate and make about the same as Hispanic high school dropouts who work full-time. The true value of a GED (aside from personal enrichment) is the opportunities the credential can provide, such as admission into the military or the chance for continued formal education.

Those who have been here longer are more likely to be eligible for these opportunities. For example, Fry finds that "Hispanic adults who speak only English at home or speak English 'very well' are more likely to have a GED than Hispanics with limited English skills," despite the fact that GED tests are also administered in Spanish. He also points out that the dropout rate for native-born Hispanics ages 20 to 29, who have been educated in the U.S., was roughly 13 percent lower than their immigrant counterparts who never attended U.S. schools.

This suggests that integration fosters upward educational mobility. The problem is our current immigration system significantly increases the number of adults without a high school diploma or GED every year. And it has proven very difficult for them to succeed. Those seeking to better the prospects of the most vulnerable face a growing struggle.