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Degree attainment rates are increasing for US Latinos but pay disparities remain


Earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Riverside was surreal for Angelina Chavez, the culmination of overcoming her imposter syndrome and embracing the efforts of her mothers, who walked the stage with her during the Latinx ceremony.

“They were both wearing one of my sashes,” said Chavez, 23, referring to her Mexican flag and first-generation sashes. “They are living their experience of pursuing higher education through me, and that is something that I value so much.”

Chavez’s moms, who immigrated from Mexico, encouraged her to get good grades and pursue as many extra-curricular activities as possible. Nevertheless, Chavez’s path to college wasn’t easy. Her parents had a limited understanding of SAT scores, advanced placement classes and how to apply to U.S. colleges.

While the number of Latinos — the nation’s largest minority group — graduating college has increased in the last two decades, they remain underpaid and underrepresented in the workforce, a reality that may require more Latinos in positions of power to facilitate change.

From 2000 to 2021, the number of Hispanic women earning advanced degrees climbed by 291%, and by 199% among Hispanic men, according to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by the Pew Research Center.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said those gains can be attributed to efforts by policy leaders to address disparities in achievements and outcomes and, despite attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, he expects graduation rates in the Hispanic community to continue to rise.

“I think the country recognizes the importance of making sure we invest in all of our students, including our Latinos,” said Cardona, who is of Puerto Rican heritage. “We have just as much potential as everyone else to be successful.”

According to census data, 21% of Hispanics ages 18 to 34 were enrolled in higher education in 2021, compared with 23% of white non-Hispanics. Pew found that 7% of Latinos aged 25 or older held a graduate degree in 2021, up from 4% in 2000, but still far fewer than 14% among all others in that age group.

Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit research and policy institute, found that more Latinos are gaining credentials in STEM and healthcare, up 44% from 2005 to 2020. Yet Latinos remain underrepresented in those fields.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2021 show only 7% of computer and information system managers and architectural and engineering managers are Hispanic, compared to at least 72% who are white. In healthcare, Latinos represent 21% of workers compared to whites, who command 65% of the workforce.

Excelencia in Education co-founder and CEO Deborah Santiago said many Latinos aren’t getting beyond associate degrees and college certificates because they have to work their way through school, and they often lack the necessary support or guidance to progress to a bachelor’s or move up the career ladder.

Labor Bureau data shows Latinos are underrepresented in higher-paying positions and are most often employed in production, transportation, farming, construction and maintenance occupations. In 2021, only 25% of Latinos in the workforce were employed in management or professional occupations.

“While it’s important that we are in service industries, we should also be in those white-collar jobs that pay more,” Santiago said. “We have a strong work ethic. We value higher education, but we need to have industry and institutions meet us part of the way and help us see the opportunities to those higher salaries.”

It was that mindset that helped Alexia Iman Burquez, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations in 2019, to move from her job on Capitol Hill to a higher paying position with Google in Los Angeles. A daughter of Mexican immigrants, Burquez says she doesn't want to be overworked and underpaid.

“Being a first gen, I knew that although I wanted to make a difference in my community, I didn’t want to sacrifice myself and perpetuate the same cycles of poverty that I came from,” she said.

Cardona believes more nonwhite Hispanic people holding bachelor’s degrees will translate to greater representation in positions of power. Once there, Latinos can create pathways for more access and higher-paying positions.

“I am a Latino secretary of education and I know the value of diversity, not only with Latinos, but with other cultures as well,” Cardona said. “So, there is a greater likelihood that because I’ve experienced it, I am more likely to see the value in people who come with diverse backgrounds”

However, pay disparities endure.

Census data analyzed by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Institute shows Latinas with a bachelor’s degree or higher are paid on average $26 per hour, lower than most college-educated workers regardless of race and gender, said co-author Misael Galdámez, senior research analyst at UCLA. Similarly educated white men make $14 more than Latina women.

Latinos in general earn the lowest salaries compared to other races. In 2021, the weekly median wage for a full-time Latino worker was $777 compared with $1,328 for Asians, $1,018 for whites and $801 for African Americans, according to Labor Bureau data.

“One of the reasons that we think that’s the case is representation in occupations,” Galdámez said. “For Latinas in particular, many of them are still working in an office admin role, which tends to pay lower than, say, if you were in a STEM field, or if you were in a management position or a CEO.”

Since graduating, Chavez has been working for a marketing company and volunteering with COOP Careers, a nonprofit focused on helping first-generation and low-income students.

“A lot of my fellows are people of color,” she said. “I feel it’s very empowering to know that I am making a difference, especially being first-generation and having this firsthand impact.”

Burquez said her first-generation friends encouraged her to ask for a salary raise instead of just being grateful she was working at a top tech company.

“It’s taxing that we have to be our best advocates, but if we don’t advocate for ourselves no one else will,” she said. “Closed mouths don’t get fed.”