The fact that U.S. Latinas are more educated than ever is a cause for celebration. What’s troubling is that while more Latinas have college degrees, and are thus earning higher salaries, Latino males are falling behind in this equation.  While we’ve read optimistic reports about the higher numbers of Hispanics attending four-year institutions, it’s the women who are driving these figures.

In 2010, Latinas earned three out of every five associate or bachelor’s degrees granted to the Latino population. And according to the 2011 census survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, 17% of Latinas (ages 25-29)  have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 10% of Latino males. So, what’s happening to the boys and men in our community and what does this mean for the future?

It seems the difference in school enrollment rates is at the root of the problem. In 2009, 44.4% of Latina girls under the age of five were enrolled on a full or part-time basis compared to only 39.4% of Latino boys. According to this same study, by third grade, boys are lagging behind girls in reading and writing. Over the years, boys of color are also more likely to be suspended, expelled from school, or placed in special education tracks. These early experiences establish a shaky educational foundation that is difficult to overcome. And though the Latino population is now the largest racial/ethnic group, they continue to have the lowest parental education levels. Therefore, parents may be unaware of how they can help their children thrive in school.

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Dr. Victor B. Sáenz, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, dedicates much of his research to this educational crisis. In the 2011 study, “Men of Color: Ensuring the Academic Success of Latino Males in Higher Education,” Dr. Sáenz and Dr. Luis Ponjuan found that familismo was significantly contributed to this disparity. Familismo involves the strong attachment to family and is “embodied by strong feelings of loyalty, responsibility, and solidarity within the Latino family unit”. Rather than pursing a higher education, Latino men often join the workforce after high school to help support their families. Xochitl, 31, who has a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies, also points out that communities of color are often targeted in military recruitment practices. This trend is examined in the compelling documentary Yo Soy El Army.

The reality is that if Latino men are not in influential careers, young Latino men will not have anyone advocating for their needs. And while it’s important for Latinas to be visible in all public spheres, it is just as critical for Latino men. This large educational disparity may also cause tension in our communities. According to Dr. Petra Guerra, an assistant professor at The University of Texas-Pan American, this gender shift may create a more dependent Latino male. As more Latinas achieve the head of household status, this will surely affect traditional family dynamics.

Fortunately, there are ways we can address this problem. The XY-Zone Project in Central Texas has created an effective leadership and peer support program to teach productive life skills for at-risk males in high school. Dr. Sáenz and Dr. Ponjuan have also mapped out their “Latino Male Success Blueprint for Action”. The first few steps include creating awareness and developing networks of support, which is something we’re all capable of.  If the proper steps are not taken, this disparity will have devastating effects on our country and our communities. Going forward, Latina moms should keep a close eye on their sons’ performance at school, while seeking male role models who will inspire their boys to reap the benefits of a college degree.