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Bridging California's Educational Divide

November 30, 2005

By Eduardo Macagno
Founding dean of the University of California San Diego's Division of Biological Sciences.

We Californians have come to depend on our robust high-tech economy for our rising incomes, home prices and lifestyles. And our superbly successful high-tech industry has grown in no small measure because of the availability of a highly trained work force.

But a report released this month by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education suggests the Golden State's economy could lose some of its luster if we fail to reverse the widening gap in educational achievement between white and a growing number of minority workers.

The report, "As America Becomes More Diverse: The Impact of State Higher Education Inequality," warns that the education and income levels of U.S. workers will decline over the next 15 years unless states do more to improve the number of college graduates from minority groups. And it expresses particular concern about the future in California, where the gap in educational attainment between minorities and whites is among the largest of any state.

In our state, according to the report, fewer than 10 percent of Latinos have a bachelor's degree, compared to nearly 40 percent of whites 7/8 a disparity that has contributed to the current income divide between Latino and white families.

According to the report, "The U.S. economy is rewarding college graduates at higher rates than ever before. From 1975 to 2001, the median earnings in constant dollars for workers with a bachelor's degree or higher rose substantially. At the same time, workers with a high school diploma experienced no real increase in income and those with less than a high school diploma lost ground."

While the California work force has slightly more college degrees than the national average, the report notes, it has substantially less than the most educated states. In addition, 22 percent of Californians of working age, 25 to 64, have less than a high school education, a percentage second only to Mississippi. And one quarter of Californians in the youngest age bracket for workers, 25 to 34, lack a high school diploma, the highest percentage in the United States.

Equally worrisome for the future of our region and state is the fact that educational achievement among California's fast-growing Latino population, which accounted for nearly 27 percent of the population in San Diego County and more than 32 percent of the California population in the 2000 census, has been declining.

According to the report, "Despite increases in educational attainment for the entire population in California, educational attainment among Hispanic males has actually declined over the past 20 years."

These educational trends do not bode well for a robust future economy. While home prices in California have shot up at far above the national rate, the same has not been true for incomes. Personal income per capita has declined substantially in California over the past four decades when compared to the rest of the United States, from 124 percent of the national average in 1960 to 109 percent in 2000.

Unless we can reverse the current trend of educational attainment, the report projects California's personal income per capita will fall below the national average for the first time, further impacting our governments' tax base and ability to provide services for its citizens.

At the University of California San Diego and across other campuses in the UC system, plans are now under way to boost the number of credentialed science and mathematics teachers in our state, which should eventually help to improve the flow of scientists and engineers entering California's universities and our work force. But for our high-tech and biotech industries in the state to continue to prosper, we can no longer afford to ignore the educational needs of our growing pool of Latinos and other minority groups. A much greater investment in our schools, our teachers and our students is needed today.

Macagno is the founding dean of the University of California San Diego's Division of Biological Sciences.