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The Hartford Courant

The O'Reilly Factor In My Life

Juan Figueroa

November 29, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

This Thanksgiving week, I must express gratitude for the O'Reilly Factor. I have been influenced by its wisdom. It has nurtured me along during troubled times. It has inspired me to fight those people who, you know, simply don't get it. I am a devoted O'Reilly fan, loyal servant and proud mentee.

If you think I am referring to Bill O'Reilly of the Fox News Channel, who likes to believe he slashes through spin but is the biggest spinmeister on network television, you think wrong. That cantankerous, acid-tongued conservative is hardly my mentor.

I am referring to Michael O'Reilly, my college recruiter, counselor and (yes) mentor. In case you wondered, Michael O'Reilly is Puerto Rican. (Not all of us are named Rodriguez, Rivera or Gonzalez.) Michael O'Reilly has recruited, mentored and counseled scores of Puerto Ricans for Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

I was in the very first group (three of us) he recruited from the island of Puerto Rico in 1973. Michael's work was part of early efforts at affirmative action in higher education. Under the inspired and visionary leadership of then Macalester President Arthur J. Flemming (former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights), the college created the Expanded Educational Opportunities Program to attract students of color.

Michael O'Reilly and Macalester knew something back then that we all know now -- a college education equals a better job. A college education today is more important than ever, and those who don't go to college will lag far behind. Indeed, the Educational Testing Service reports that almost 6 out of 10 jobs today require college-level skills.

Over the last 20 years, the representation of Hispanics in higher education has grown substantially. According to the Census Bureau, Hispanics now represent 15 percent (4.1 million) of the total traditional college-age population (18- to 24-year-olds). The National Center for Education Statistics tells us that in 1997 Hispanic students represented about 9 percent of the total college-level enrollment (1.2 million) -- up from 4 percent (383,800) in 1976. Yet, even with this rate of growth, the share of 18- to 24-year-old Hispanic undergraduates in 2015 will still be smaller than the overall 18- to 24-year-old U.S. Hispanic population (projected by the census to be 22 percent of the U.S. total by 2020). This isn't good news for Latino families or for the economy.

The tax-revenue implications of a higher participation rate by Latinos in higher education are striking. Hispanics earning a bachelor's degree have been projected by one study to pay at least twice as much in taxes in their lifetimes as those with a high school diploma -- and those with professional credentials pay more than three times as much in taxes as those with a bachelor's degree. If the 1995 higher-education participation rate of Latinos had equaled that of blacks (15 percent), it would have produced $1 billion in federal taxes with $600 million in Social Security and Medicare payments. If it had equaled that of whites (30 percent), federal taxes paid would have been $15 billion and Social Security/Medicare $6.6 billion.

The policy implications of this picture should be abundantly clear, but on the ground, it's people like Mike O'Reilly who make a difference. His intellect, warm personality and total commitment to his students made it possible for all us to adjust to a different environment (and trust me, Minnesota winters are very cold). The transition from Puerto Rico, the Bronx, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York meant more than getting used to the weather. O'Reilly provided the tools for us to adapt and eventually to succeed. I attended a recent luncheon honoring Michael, which brought together an impressive group of Latino judges, doctors, lawyers, business people, educators and elected officials, among others. His dedication has paid off. Macalester's investment in him and in us has yielded high dividends.

To attract, retain and integrate students of color in colleges and universities, a good place to start is to hire the likes of Michael O'Reilly. Bendicion, Mike.

Juan A. Figueroa is president and general counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City. He served as a Democratic state representative from Hartford from 1988 to 1993.

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