The news last week from the Pew Hispanic Center that there was a 24 percent spike in the number of Hispanics enrolled in college was certainly welcome. The data seem to suggest that America is assimilating this latest wave of immigrants, just as they did the Italians, the Irish, the Jews, etc. It is true that Hispanics are still the least likely of any major ethnic group in America to have completed college, but this level of increase in the course of only one year certainly puts them on the right track. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the Pew survey:
Population growth was not as large a factor in the spike as Hispanics' increased rate of eligibility for college, the report says. From 2009 to 2010, the population of 18- to 24-year-old Hispanics grew only 7 percent. But more Hispanic young adults were eligible to attend college than ever before—nearly 73 percent had finished high school—and more college-eligible Hispanic youths enrolled in college than ever before. A possible long-term factor that raised enrollment rates may be the increasing value of a college education to a worker's income, the report says.
Critics of hispanic immigration often suggest that this is an ethnic group that simply doesn't share our values and that's why they won't be able to assimilate. The same criticism was made of previous immigrant groups, of course. But this report suggests that Hispanics respond to economic incentives just like everyone else. Over the past few years we have been told over and over about the ways in which college degrees or even some college courses can increase earning potential. For a group that has a greater percentage than others of low-skilled workers, this message was particularly important and it has gotten through. The report shows that Hispanics are more likely than blacks to enroll in community colleges, which suggests that they are interested in pursuing more vocational courses of study, I think.
(I have argued in the past that we should have avenues besides a college education for signaling to employers that an applicant is hard working, shows up on time, etc. But this is the system we have and I'm glad that college is still serving as a means of upward mobility for many.) By the way, we can't at the same time argue that Hispanics don't value education and then scream bloody murder when immigrants living in our states want to pay in-state tuition. Either they want the education or they don't.
More generally, I think Hispanics are standing on many of our nation's statistical fault lines. It is true that first and second generation immigrants were lagging behind in education and that makes one worry about whether they move up the economic ladder. They also tend to be more religious than other ethnic groups in America. According to a 2007 report from the Pew Hispanic Center, more than 90 percent identified with a specific religious tradition. The report goes on to say that:
For the great majority of Latinos, regardless of their religious tradition, God is an active force in daily life. Most Latinos pray every day, most have a crucifix or other religious object in their home and most attend a religious service at least once a month....Latinos are somewhat more likely than non-Hispanics to say that religion is very important in their lives. Sometimes the difference is within religious traditions: Almost half of Latino Catholics — more than twice the rate of white Catholics — say the Bible is the literal word of God.
Given recent reports suggesting that (contrary to popular stereotypes) religious belief is associated both with higher rates of education and with other elements of middle-class life, including intact families, it is possible that their rates of religiosity will mean an even higher rate of assimilation. On the other hand, Hispanics continue to have a higher than average rate of out-of-wedlock births. While the children born out of wedlock are more likely to grow up in two-parent households, than, say, black children born out of wedlock, it will be interesting to see how these somewhat conflicting trends will turn out a few generations from now. The signs right now are pointing up.