IF THERE’S STILL anyone who thinks that education levels and income in California will continue their steady rise, they may be in for a shock. If current education policies continue unchanged, the California workforce of 2020 is going to be less educated than today’s, according to a recent report released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and the state’s per-capita income will drop more substantially than elsewhere in the country.
The transformation will occur as baby boomers, the most highly educated generation in U.S. history, retire. Across the country they will be replaced by a growing population of young workers from the nation’s least-educated minority groups. The share of the workforce that is college educated will shrink accordingly, losing the U.S. much of its advantage in the global marketplace.
The problem is national, but in California it will be particularly severe. Consider some of our report’s findings: The Latino population, by far the least educated of any of the state’s large minority groups, is expanding dramatically. By 2020, Latinos will make up as large a share of the state’s working-age population (people 25 to 64 years old) as whites -- about 38% Latino and 39% white. This is a seismic shift; in 1990, only 22% of working-age adults were Latino and 61% were white. And the gap in education between Latinos and whites in California will turn the demographic shift into a statewide economic decline.
Just look at the numbers. Among California’s current working-age population, 46% of whites have a college degree, while 12% of Latinos do, according to census data. At the other end of the education spectrum, more than half of working-age Latinos do not have even a high school diploma, compared to 8% of whites.
Yet the state is making only limited progress with its current students. Over the last decade, California has managed to raise the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds who have high school diplomas, and the percentage of those enrolled in college. But of those who do enroll in college or post-high school certificate programs, the percentage of those actually completing the programs is very low compared to other states. And on every one of these measures, the gaps between young Latinos, on the one hand, and young whites, blacks and Asian Americans remain large.
To some extent, the problem may be one of inadequate preparation in California’s schools. Among the measures we follow at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, one is particularly telling. We track the percentage of low-income eighth-graders in each state who score at or above “proficient” on the national assessment exam in math. Among the top states, an average 23% of low-income students are this well-prepared for higher education. California is only at 9%.
But preparation is not the whole story. The expense of higher education can also be prohibitive. California provides more low-cost college options than most states and has recently increased its investment in need-based financial aid. But for the poorest 40% of California families, the cost each year of sending a child to community college still amounts to more than a third of the average family income. The cost of sending a child to a public four-year college, even after figuring in financial aid, amounts to nearly half of such a family’s income.
If California does nothing more to raise the education level of its residents, and particularly of its largest, fastest-growing and least-educated minority group, it can expect to lose economic ground against the world and other states. For the sake of all, California’s continuing educational disparities must be confronted and removed.