The challenge could not be more vivid: Only 11 percent of Hispanics in Arizona graduate from a four-year college or university and less than two-thirds possess a high school diploma. With a dramatically expanding population in Arizona and nationwide, this is a red flag for the economic and social prosperity of the Hispanic community, as well as the fortunes of an economy facing serious shortages of educated workers. Failure to progress portends higher Hispanic unemployment rates, lower income and buying power, and a missed opportunity to benefit from the talent and potential of this increasingly significant segment of our society.
This challenge represents an opportunity for community colleges, which already enroll a significant and growing number of Hispanic students seeking post-secondary education. At Maricopa Community Colleges, for example, Hispanics represent 26 percent of total enrollment —over 33,000 students—and 23 percent of the certificates and degrees awarded in 2014.
Recognizing that Hispanics are the fastest-growing and youngest group in the U.S.—expected to comprise 30 percent of the US by 2040 and, by 2020, tally a majority of the school-aged children in states like Arizona—we need to work diligently to expand Hispanic post-secondary enrollment and graduation rates at our community colleges and four-year universities. This is not simply a question of serving the Hispanic community or pursuing a moral imperative to address social and economic inequalities, this represents an acknowledgement that our shared prosperity depends on making advances.
Over the last five years, I have worked closely with community college and industry leaders in their efforts to encourage student participation in educational programs and careers related to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). Working with my colleagues at Science Foundation Arizona, we have focused on building a pipeline of qualified students capable of stepping into positions that require specific and often high-tech skills. This has meant closing the gap between the needs of local industries and the knowledge and experience of students.
This work has been a complex, multi-pronged process, involving everything from organizing STEM camps and career days for high-school students, to creating opportunities for juniors and seniors in high school to take engineering courses at the community-college level, to nurturing relationships and hastening industry internships that have led companies to recruit and hire community college graduates armed with the necessary certificates or degrees. And we have specifically targeted efforts with rural community colleges and colleges with significant Hispanic populations.
These initiatives have been predicated on the belief that by strengthening the link between students and industry we can expand the talent pool so critical to our state and nation’s economic growth. This should seem obvious, but for far too long students have failed to see how their hard work toward a community college certificate or an associate or bachelor’s degree would lead to employment. This is especially evident in the Hispanic community which has suffered from low attainment rates.
Throughout the state, many community colleges are aiming to increase the number and quality of students completing STEM courses, certificates and degrees—including Cochise College in southeastern Arizona, where an 11 percent growth in STEM-related jobs is projected by 2018. Many of the positions are at Fort Huachuca, a major military installation, and surrounding companies involved in aerospace, IT, biotechnology, engineering, defense and more. In fact, Fort Huachuca is facing a severe workforce shortage, particularly with positions involving some post-secondary education and technical skill. This underscores our challenge and opportunity—and it’s why SFAz has taken the counsel of people like Jerry Proctor, the former deputy to the Commanding General at the US Army’s Intelligence Center there, to build strong mentoring skills, community partnerships and strategic networking to enhance workforce development.
We have the chance to strengthen the connections between our K-12 schools, community colleges and four-year universities. The goal is to encourage more of our young people—and particularly Hispanics—to pursue the path of education and, ultimately, develop the training and skills needed to land well-paying jobs and succeed.
As Arizona has struggled with a GDP that is only 78 percent of the national level and the Hispanic population continues to grow, expanding the number of educated Hispanics may be the difference between our state experiencing rising prosperity or slipping further behind. This should be an issue that motivates us all.
– Caroline VanIngen-Dunn is the Director of Community College STEM Pathways for Science Foundation Arizona. The National Science Foundation has funded SFAz to work with community colleges (Grant #1450661), particularly those that are designated Hispanic Serving Institutions and those in rural communities. The opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.