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Commentary: No simple reason for alarming dropout rate

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- In my travels, I'm often asked to explain who Latinos are and what their values entail. Sometimes, I have to begin by setting the record straight and correcting false impressions.

That's what I tried to do recently after a speech to a business group in Aspen. A man in the audience noted that, in Colorado, many Latino students were dropping out of school. From this, the man concluded that Latino parents must not value education. And he wanted to know what could be done.

First, get the story right. Adding 2 and 2 doesn't give you 5.

There's no denying we have a dropout problem and that it comes at a high cost. The U.S. Census Bureau recently released a report that measured how those who drop out of high school stack up against those with more education. In 2004, high school dropouts earned an average annual income of $19,169. College graduates earned an average of $51,554. Those with graduate degrees had an average salary of $78,093. Lower wages mean less money paid in payroll taxes, and a greater strain on safety nets such as Medicare and Social Security.

But the problem isn't confined to any one group. According to many estimates, today's teenagers are dropping out of school at an alarming rate -- about 30 percent across the board, a statistic that is close to what it was in the 1970s. African-Americans and Latinos drop out at rates around 50 percent. Still, this is an American phenomenon that is surfacing everywhere -- big city and small town, urban and rural district, all races and backgrounds.

And just because students are dropping out of school doesn't mean that their parents don't value education. Nothing is that simple.

Many Latino parents put tremendous value on the education of their children. Try to find any successful Latino professional who doesn't credit his or her parents for driving them to achieve great things through education. I can't tell you the number of educated-related functions I've been to over the years, scholarship dinners and the like, where I've seen Latino parents in attendance wearing their Sunday best despite having worked a 12-hour day.

The problem is that many Latinos have a tough time leading by example, and that, while they value education for their children, they don't always value it for themselves. Otherwise, you might see more of them enrolled in English courses or citizenship classes or GED coursework. Many Latinos have decided that the way to get ahead is through hard work, and that's where they focus their passion.

Yet, few things have as great an impact on the behavior of young people as the behavior in which they see their parents engage. If children see that mom and dad don't have a high school diploma but have still managed to work hard enough to own a house, they might convince themselves that education is more of a luxury than a necessity.

And, in a world that is becoming more competitive by the day, that's the wrong lesson to learn.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. Click here to read his column.external link

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Just because students drop out doesn't mean parents don't value education.

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