Racial gap in education puts drag on economy

150 150 Michelle Bergmann

(Photo Credit: Desmond Talkington/Flickr)

Hiding in the shadows of Silicon Valley’s successful startups lies a paradox. Major tech companies need skilled workers that they can’t find in California and outsource talent from overseas for highly paid workers. Meanwhile, nearby low-income communities struggle to pay rent while many of their children drop out. This is the familiar tale of two Californias.

“There is this huge disconnect. It’s throughout, it’s pervasive and it’s critical,” said Rita Cepeda, Chancellor of the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District.

Cepeda was born in Nicaragua, moved to the U.S. as a child, and was educated by the California public school system in Long Beach as a minority. But today in California, 51 percent of K–12 students are Latino. They are the ethnic majority, but somehow they have the second to the highest dropout rates (after African Americans). After doing the math, those numbers are extraordinary.

“We are developing a cohort of color who will be perpetually homeless,” said Cepeda. “We can say it’s the economy or politics, but as a Latina from Nicaragua I can’t help but see the connection between poverty and race.”

A new report by Young Invincibles breaks down racial disparity—focusing on African Americans and Latinos— in California’s workforce and education. For example, the report shows the median income of young Latino adults is $20,000 compared to the median income of young white adults at $29,000.

Millennials are the largest unemployed group in California, and within that group is a widening racial gap. Black young adults are unemployed at 24 percent, over twice that of white young adults at 11 percent. Each unemployed 25–34 year old costs California $1,614 annually, translating to loss of $219.2 million each year.

For Cepeda, the dollar signs point to diplomas. She says for every dollar invested in education, you get back threefold. “We are talking about a poverty gap that is serious, which is why I am not afraid to talk about the value of education intrinsically but also financially.”

And she is not afraid to talk about the fact that it’s more likely the undereducated who will end up relying on the state system or in state-funded prisons.

“In prison 65 percent of Latinos do not have high school diplomas, that tells you something about where they may end up,” said Cepeda. “It’s all embedded there.”

To close the racial gap that puts a drag on the workforce and the amount of degrees awarded, partnerships between schools and employers are seen as vital by the Young Invincibles report authors, Cepeda and also Sydney Kamlager, a candidate for the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees. Kamlager is currently the district director for Senator Holly Mitchell who will be hosting Attacking Poverty by Connecting College Education & Workforce Development tomorrow morning at Los Angeles City College.

“We need to do better by our businesses by doing better by our students. All of them,” said Kamlager. “It’s time to get back to the business at hand: making student transfers easier, offering more supportive services that will help students succeed, and focusing on career pathways that lead to real careers. Partnerships are easy, it’s courage that we need.”

The California Economic Summit’s Workforce Action Team advocates for stronger collaboration between companies and community colleges that would provide a clear pathway to employment. Boosting career technical education programs across all regions of the state to fill jobs known to be in demand in those regions is just one way to do that.

“Unless there is conscious effort by employers to reach out to ethnic communities, the assumption is that they are not interested. But the truth is they just aren’t aware,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan, Co-Lead of the California Workforce Action team and Vice Chancellor at California Community Colleges.

And the education gap begins before kindergarten. Cepeda said the racial gap widens as lower-income groups start kindergarten without a pre-k education while higher-income groups gain an academic advantage with it. Plus, children labeled as an English language learner (or ELL) are given less rigorous curriculum.

“What happens to that child in first grade, doubly complicated by the fact that they may not speak English?” said Cepeda. “It’s not about intelligence. It’s about opportunity.”

The purpose of the Young Invincibles report was to show the need for the state to implement a system that will effectively close the race gap and bring California back as a leading state. Currently, California is below the national average for percent of adults holding a post-secondary degree, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

“The report shows we can’t just keep doing what we have been doing because we have been broadening inequalities,” said Linda Leu, California Policy and Research Director for the Young Invincibles. “We reinvest and move forward by investing in all communities.”

Leu acknowledges the many factors that play into the racial gap—like institutional racism— but she says California must address the issue upstream to have impact, especially during a recession comeback.

“We want to operate under the assumption that anyone can attain economic stability,” said Leu. “We need to be ensuring that all young people of all races are being set up to be on a path.”

A path that could start with education and opportunity and end with a group of ethnically diverse skilled workers to fill those high-paying Silicon Valley jobs. Oh, and not to mention, saving California a lot of money.


Michelle Bergmann

All stories by: Michelle Bergmann