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Building a New Nevada
Increasing Access and Success for Nevada's Rapidly Growing Latino Population
The days of relying only on service-based industries for Nevada's economic future are gone. The time has come for Nevada to reinvent itself and decide if it wants to return to a vibrant economy and while doing so, become a culturally rich and well-balanced citizenry that is proud to call this state home.
I won't go into great detail, or list countless studies that show the direct relation between education and economic prosperity. It's simply common sense. It is a highly skilled workforce that will attract new businesses to Nevada. It is a highly skilled workforce that will keep businesses in Nevada. And it is a highly skilled workforce that will enable us to rebuild Nevada.
To help that effort, the Nevada System of Higher Education has been diligently working to increase access to education. Perhaps our largest area of improvement, one that will net our state the fastest and most profitable return, will be to increase the educational success of Nevada's Latino population.
Educating our fastest growing population
Every year, from September 15 to October 15, we honor and remember the important contributions of Hispanic Americans in our country through Hispanic Heritage Month. Around the state, public institutions and communities at large organize programs and initiatives that recognize and celebrate great Americans from Cesar Chavez, a Mexican American civil rights activist and founder of the United Farm Workers, to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina on the United States Supreme Court. In Nevada, Latinos have shaped and contributed to the economic, social and political well-being of the state.
Hispanic Heritage Month also serves to remind us that now, more than ever, educational achievement and success for Latinos is of critical importance for everyone, not just Latinos. Not only are Latinos the largest minority population in our country (15 percent), they are expected to continue growing, and in many Southwestern states are a minority majority. Nevada's Latinos account for at least 25 percent of the population. If we drill down and just consider Clark County's school-aged population, this figure jumps to 40 percent. Not surprising, over a 10-year period (1997 to 2007), Latino student enrollment at NSHE institutions increased by 135 percent, exceeding all other ethnic/racial groups.
Despite this increase, Latino students continue to be underrepresented in Nevada's public colleges and universities and in fall 2008 accounted for only 17 percent of the total NSHE enrollment. Consequently, the proportion of Latino students attending and graduating from NSHE institutions is not keeping pace with the increase in the state's Latino population.
We have been trying to close this gap. Nevada's college and university leaders have focused on making student access and success a priority. By incorporating it in our master plans and strategic goals, we have sought out access and success experts to learn from their practices. We have created and strengthened outreach and success initiatives, and built institutional structures to sustain such efforts. In addition, we have supported community-based initiatives to build a stronger student pipeline to a college education.
For example, NSHE's Southern Nevada institutions have collaborated with the Nevada Latina/o Youth Leadership Conference over the past 16 years. This weeklong program encourages, supports, and mentors talented Latino high school students who otherwise may not have had the college knowledge or resources to attend a postsecondary institution. To date, more than 700 Latino students have participated and successfully navigated college to become educators, attorneys, doctors, business and political leaders.
A similar story can be told in Northern Nevada where community-based organizations, such as Nevada Hispanic Services, work with postsecondary institutions to widen postsecondary access through scholarship, leadership and mentoring programs.
We have made progress and many deeply committed people in Nevada have made a difference.
But it is not enough.
The economic cost of an undereducated Latino population
The consequences of an undereducated Latino population have significant and critical implications as we consider Nevada's economic, social and political future. Dr. Marta Tienda of Princeton University identified the risks, opportunities, and the nation's future contingent on the educational achievement of Latinos. In a 2009 lecture, she stated the economic costs of education underinvestment are enormous for the nation. Just a two-year average education gap between Latinos and Whites costs approximately $100 billion in lost earnings and could easily double by 2030. Stated differently, the U.S. international competitiveness in the global economy will be impacted by the progress that Latinos make at all levels of the educational system, in particular college participation and completion.
In Nevada, the poverty rate for those with less than a high school degree is almost three times higher than those with a bachelor's degree. Further, the economic earnings of high school graduates compared to college graduates are real and significant. The benefits from postsecondary education are not limited to economic returns. Study after study finds that an education improves health outcomes, decreases crime, increases community involvement and a general openness to diverse perspectives.
For too long, much of our focus on the minority educational gap (Latinos, Blacks and American Indians) has been on student characteristics and cultural factors. Researchers, however, are finding that contrary to popularly held beliefs, Latino students hold high academic aspirations which are often influenced by parental encouragement. Consider for instance, a September 2009 survey by Pew Hispanic Center which showed that nearly 90 percent of Latinos aged 16-25 believed a college education was important for getting ahead in life. More than three-quarters said their parents thought going to college was the most important thing to do after high school.
Yet these aspirations are not translating into college enrollment and completion in Nevada. The reality is that institutional, economic, and policy factors play a greater and more significant role in the ability for students to succeed.
For the last 10 years, researchers from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA have focused on the racial gaps in education. One theme that cuts across all the studies in this project is that schools and neighborhoods are, in a great many states, as racially segregated (if not more) today than in the 1960s. The implications are often less resourced schools, higher teacher turnover and limited access to college bound curriculum. More troubling is the triple segregation Latino students confront as they deal with issues of poverty, language and neighborhood and school segregation.
Working together to build a new Nevada
This work cannot occur in a vacuum, and a renewed commitment to increasing postsecondary participation and completion must include critical stakeholders and partners. These partners include school districts, community and business leaders and policymakers.
To begin, I have identified individuals at NSHE to help strengthen relationships between public postsecondary institutions, school districts, and business and community stakeholders to build a sustainable and ongoing collaboration that will address the educational troubles in Nevada.
Partnerships, of course, are not a new idea. These have existed since the beginning of public education. However, new contexts, leadership, and changing community needs require that we reevaluate how we communicate and collaborate in order to strengthen these relationships. For instance, the economic recession has put industries in disequilibrium, forcing them to reexamine how they do business and their human resources/capital needs. As public institutions, we must be on the front line listening and asking critical questions in order to shape our institutional practices and how we prepare the next generation of college graduates and engaged global citizens.
Additional critical partners are our school districts who prepare students for postsecondary experiences. More than ever, school districts and public postsecondary institutions need to work in tandem when it comes to education policy and curriculum alignment.
And finally, but not in the least, we must be diligent about providing our policy makers, at all levels, with evidence-driven recommendations that will help more Nevada residents achieve their postsecondary and career goals.
This is not a quick fix. Nevada did not arrive at its current educational crisis overnight. Crafting and implementing solutions will not occur immediately. It will take committed, competent, and compassionate leadership at all levels.
More than 40 years ago, Bobby Kennedy reminded us that, "education is the foundation of economic progress in the world. It is also a passport to citizenship... [that] a human being is not, in any proper sense, a human being until he is educated. Men without education are condemned to live as outsiders - outside political life, outside the 20th century, foreigners in their own land."
These fundamental truths are no less true nor less important today and must guide our every policy decision. In a very real sense, our future hinges on our ability to fully include all in the promise and opportunity of building a better life and a new Nevada through education.
Nevada System of Higher Education