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Study: Hispanic Immigrants Make Education Gains In 30 Yrs

December 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 

WASHINGTON (AP)--Education levels for Hispanic immigrants have surged in the last 30 years, though gaps with native-born U.S. residents remain wide.

The study from the Pew Hispanic Center, a research group, also found education levels differing according to where a Latino immigrant arrived from. Those from Mexico and Central America have less distance to get to the U.S., making it easier and cheaper for an undocumented immigrant with less education to travel.

Meanwhile, those from South America typically have to pay more to travel farther to enter the country, so they would tend to be more educated, or at least come from families where the cost of a plane ticket - or an education - isn't as much of an obstacle, said one of the report's authors, B. Lindsay Lowell.

The overall gap with U.S.-born residents persists, in part, because many Hispanic families cannot afford rising college costs, experts said. In other families, kids may not attend school regularly, because they end up going to work instead. Separately, undocumented students find it hard to get financial aid.

The center's analysis of Census Bureau data from 1970 to 2000 found the share of Hispanic immigrants over 25 who graduated from high school increased from 28% to 59%, while for U.S.-born residents it grew from 53% to 87%.

Those immigrants who attended at least two years of college or a two-year degree doubled from 9% to 18%, while for U.S.-born citizens it increased from 17% to 35%.

Even with the disparities, "the education profile of the adult Latino immigrant population has improved significantly over the past 30 years," said the Pew center's director, Roberto Suro.

"In the coming decades, the educational composition of the Latino foreign-born population will begin to look more like that of the American native-born population," Suro and Lowell wrote.

Jim Ferg-Cadima, a legislative analyst with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the report was overly optimistic. He said it didn't account for factors that may limit Hispanic advances, including college costs or private financial aid sources, which tend to give more merit to applicants who are citizens.

Plus, forecasts are difficult to make, because "this country's treatment of immigrants is always in flux," he said.

Data from the 2000 census showed the Hispanic population more than doubled during the 1990s to 35.3 million, rivaling blacks as the nation's largest minority group. Many Latinos from Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Central America, arrived in the past decade to take plentiful, low-skilled, low-paying jobs in factories, meatpacking plants and on farms.

The influx has strained many urban and rural schools struggling to teach new immigrants with little or no grasp of English. Some critics have called for more limits on immigration to ease the burden on schools and to reduce the number of Hispanic dropouts in the work force.

Government estimates place the illegal immigrant population between eight million and nine million, with nearly half from Mexico. About two-thirds of all undocumented immigrants haven't finished high school, the report said.

Suro said he was optimistic disparities would narrow as younger foreign-born residents who tend to have more education displace in the population older residents who are less educated. In addition, more immigrant families are getting their education in the U.S., where schools tend to be better than in Latin American countries.

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