03/01/2013 06:56 pm ET Updated May 01, 2013

More Latinos Are Graduating, But Dropouts Are Still a Problem

The most recent government statistics on educational achievement in the U.S. have revealed some unexpectedly good news, particularly for the Latino community. Latinos, who have long suffered from an "achievement gap" in educational performance in comparison with white and Asian students, have seen their attendance rates rise and dropout rates fall.

Part of the story of improved Latino graduation rates is the general national improvement in educational access. In 2010, nation-wide graduation rates rose to over 78 percent, the highest level since 1974. Latinos benefited from that overall trend: the most recent numbers indicate that more than 70 percent of Latino students graduated on time in 2010 -- a number that represents an increase of 10 percentage points in just five years. But another aspect of the trend towards improvement is the steady rise of Latinos as a share of total K-12 enrollment: for the first time in U.S. history, one in four public school elementary students is Latino.

What is behind this decrease in dropouts? There appear to be several relevant reasons. One may be that a weaker economy and a tepid labor market encourages more students than normal to remain in school, since dropping out and finding quality employment becomes more difficult. There are also demographic factors at play as well. Mark Hugo Lopez, Associate Director of the Pew Hispanic Center, argues that as a new generation of Latinos born in the U.S. come of schooling age, they are more likely than their parents to enroll in and complete their education at all levels.

But these improvements, while heartening, are far from satisfactory. The Latino high school graduation rate is still below average, far below that of white students, who graduate at an 83 percent rate, and even further below Asian and Pacific Islander students, of whom 93 percent graduate. And while some states with large Latino populations are performing above average -- in Texas, for example, 82 percent of Latinos graduate with a high school degree -- in other states, the situation continues to be dire. In New York, only 69 percent of Latinos graduate, while Minnesota and Nevada are the worst performing states, with 51 percent and 53 percent Latino graduation rates, respectively.

An educated, well-prepared labor force is a bedrock necessity for a knowledge- and innovation-based economy -- and much of the rest of the world is outstripping the U.S. in that respect. The U.S. once had the highest high school and university graduation rates in the world, but now, according to the OECD, we rank a mere 22nd in that regard. In the US, both Latinos as well as our overall graduation rate are well below the OECD average of 84 percent, while a diverse set of countries streak past us: Finland and South Korea, for instance, each have 94 percent graduation rates, and Japan has a 96 percent rate.

Given that Latinos make up an increasingly large proportion of the U.S. student body, such high dropout rates will negatively impact competitiveness, despite the signs of improvement. Latinos account for more than 12 million of the nation's 55 million publically-enrolled K-12. In addition, while Latino college enrollment has grown at pace of 15 percent in 2011 to a record of 2.1 million enrolled, we are still at a place in which only 47 percent of Hispanics complete a college degree, compared to 63 percent nationally. Such numbers of those not finishing even a basic formal education are far too high.

This becomes clearer as the costs and benefits for each individual are considered. Graduation from high school has a deep personal impact on a student's development over the entire course of their lives. A recent study by the educational reform organization America's Promise Alliance, founded by Colin Powell, estimates that those that graduate from high school earn a total of $130,000 more over the course of their lifetime than non-graduates. Multiply that number by 12 million, and the implications for national prosperity become stark.

A number of states have undertaken efforts to improve their situations. Florida is one, having led the reform effort since 1999, with impressive results. Florida districts changed their leadership and trained new teachers, gave low income parents greater choices in charter schools and scholarships, and invested heavily in early childhood literacy. While scores stagnated in most of the country last year, SAT scores for Florida's Hispanic students increased. In the City of New Orleans, as well, after several reforms, graduation rates are up, and failing schools are down.

In addition to these reforms, as America's Promise Alliance points out, there are a number of approaches that states could follow to cut down the dropout rates in particular. Better data collection can spur greater public accountability. Stable, long term funding mechanisms can ensure the longevity of reform. And experimentation with other models at the state level can weed out the good ideas from the bad and serve as an example across the nation.

The recent decline in dropout rates is an excellent sign -- but it is only the beginning of an effort to bring U.S. schools back up to par with their world class origins, and close the persistent achievement gap.