Rice Kinder Institute report: Hispanics are a growing presence in Houston, but more must be done to close the achievement gaps

More than Anglos or African-Americans, Houston’s Hispanics recognize the importance of education and believe that hard work will be rewarded, but more must be done to close the gaps in their educational achievement, according to a new report from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Titled “Shared Prospects: Hispanics and the Future of Houston,” the report also shows that Hispanic immigrants do better economically the longer they live in America, but progress stalls after the second generation. 

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With more than 1.7 million Hispanics, Harris County is second only to Los Angeles in having the largest Hispanic population of any county in America. The median age of the Hispanic population is 27, compared with a median age of 42 for Houston’s Anglo population. Hispanics now comprise more than half of all Harris County residents who are under the age of 20. Their progress, the report noted, will do much to determine the future of the Houston area as a whole.

Socio-economic progress

The surveys show that Hispanic immigrants have generally been able, despite low levels of education, to work their way out of poverty and to move several rungs up the income ladder the longer they have lived in America. The number of immigrants who were earning more than $25,000 a year grew from 33 percent among the immigrants who had been in America for nine years or less to 54 percent for those who had been here for 20 years or longer.

Hispanic immigrants are also much less likely (at 59 percent), compared with 70-78 percent of U.S.-born Anglos, blacks and Hispanics, to agree with the suggestion that “most poor people in the U.S. today are poor because of circumstances they can’t control.” They are much more likely to assert instead that people are poor “because they don’t work hard enough.” In addition, 92 percent of Hispanic immigrants agree that “If you work hard in this city, eventually you will succeed,” and 88 percent assert that it is necessary to have more than a high-school education to succeed in today’s world, a view held by only 63 percent of Anglos.

Houston’s U.S.-born Hispanics are doing much better than their immigrant counterparts on virtually all measures of economic well-being; however, third and higher generations (U.S.-born Hispanics with both parents also born in America) are not obtaining substantially more education or making more money in better jobs than the second generation (U.S.-born Hispanics with immigrant parents).

“Native-born Hispanics as a group closely resemble U.S.-born blacks on all these measures of socio-economic status,” Klineberg said, “suggesting that the two communities are facing many of the same structural barriers that hamper efforts to succeed in today’s economy.”

Immigrant assimilation

Fully 40 percent of the Hispanic immigrants who had been in America for 20 years or more were able to conduct the interviews in English; this was the case for only 20 percent of those who had been here for less than 10 years. In addition, fewer than half of the long-term immigrants – 44 percent – said they thought of themselves as “primarily Hispanic,” compared with 78 percent of the newcomers. The numbers drop further to 28 percent among second-generation Hispanics and to 17 percent in the third generation.

The survey participants were also asked about interethnic friendships and romantic relationships. Hispanic immigrants who had been in this country for fewer than 10 years reported close friendships with Anglos blacks, and Asians at rates of 53, 36 and 18 percent, respectively. The proportions rose to 70, 57 and 35 percent, respectively, among longer-term immigrants. The number of respondents who said they had been involved in a romantic relationship with someone who was not Hispanic grew from 15 percent among the recent immigrants to 30 percent of those who had been here for 20 years or more, to 55 and 61 percent for the U.S.-born Hispanics. Among married third-generation Hispanics, 28 percent had a non-Hispanic spouse.

“The Hispanic residents of Harris County show no signs of resistance to becoming fully integrated into the multiethnic community that is Houston today,” Klineberg said. “All the evidence suggests that today’s Hispanic immigrants are becoming fully ‘American’ in ways that parallel the last great wave of immigration (1890-1924), when similar concerns were expressed about the newcomers from eastern and southern Europe.”

Educational attainment

The report found that when it comes to differences in educational attainment, national origins matter greatly. Sixty-four percent of the immigrants from Mexico, 67 percent from El Salvador and 50 percent from other Central American countries did not have high-school diplomas, but this was the case for only 13 percent of Cuban and South American immigrants and for none of the Hispanic immigrants from Europe. Just 5 percent of the Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants had college degrees, compared with 45 percent of the Cuban and South American immigrants.

The report noted further that the highly educated immigrants from Cuba, South America and Europe comprise just 10 percent of Houston’s total Hispanic population. The critical question for Houston’s future, Klineberg said, rests with the fates of the 90 percent of all Hispanic immigrants and their families “who have generally arrived into this knowledge-based economy from Mexico and Central America with great energy and optimism, but with very low levels of formal education.” Klineberg also noted that at a time when educational credentials are more important than ever before, Hispanic and African-American children are often relegated to segregated, overcrowded, underfunded inner-city schools with relatively few resources.

All this has contributed to some troubling statistics, he said. Just 6.4 percent of all Hispanic seniors in HISD high schools in 2011 (9.8 percent of those who took the tests) met the criterion of “college readiness” on the SAT or ACT tests. “Whatever the combination of forces responsible for the slowing of educational advancement, these are not obstacles that low-income families can readily overcome on their own,” Klineberg said.

“If the achievement gaps can be bridged effectively and soon,” the report concluded, “Houston will be well-positioned to capitalize on having a young, multicultural and multilingual workforce, prepared to compete successfully in today’s global economy. Many promising initiatives are underway in the Houston region to support the hopes and ambitions of these rising generations, but much more is needed.”

“Shared Prospects: Hispanics and the Future of Houston” draws on the findings from 21 years of the Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey – 1994 through 2014. The systematic telephone interviews reached representative samples of 4,829 U.S.-born Hispanics and 4,291 Hispanic immigrants, enabling analysis of the differences among the immigrants by country of origin and by the length of time they have been in America and among the U.S.-born Hispanics by whether they are part of the second generation (the U.S.-born children of immigrant parents) or the third generation and beyond (with both parents born in this country).

For a copy of the report or for more information, visit kinder.rice.edu.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.