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Viewpoint: Creating Pathways for Social Mobility

Commissioner Carlos E. Santiago
January 30, 2019

In the last edition of the DHE Forward, I wrote about the Board of Higher Education’s historic move to establish Massachusetts’ system of public higher education as the first in the nation with equity as its top statewide policy and performance priority. Two weeks ago, I was pleased to share our equity agenda and goals with members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus at their monthly convening.

With the start of the bi-annual legislative session, the State House representatives were interested in knowing how Massachusetts public colleges and universities could best serve their diverse constituents. They were concerned about the rising costs of higher education and the Department of Higher Education’s role in reducing the obstacles students face in their pursuit of a postsecondary credential.

During my time with the Caucus, I presented hard truths about the scope of the problems we face—specifically, consistently and substantially lower college enrollment and completion rates for Latinx and African American students as compared to their White counterparts. A single data point underscores the gravity of the issue: currently in Massachusetts, the gap between the percentage of White female and Latino male adults who hold a postsecondary credential is 43 percentage points.

“Through educational opportunity and a systemwide focus on equity, we can indeed help our students of color move from the underclass to the middle class.”

Such inequities were hardly unknown to the members of the Caucus. Those attending our meeting represent communities that include Boston, Haverhill, Lawrence, Holyoke, and Springfield. The legislators see firsthand in their districts the disparity of higher education opportunities and outcomes compared with wealthier, whiter regions of the Commonwealth. I was encouraged to see how closely tied members of the Caucus are to the campuses in their districts; many were well versed in our efforts to overhaul remedial education, for example. Rep. Aaron Vega (D-Holyoke), who sent two of his daughters to Holyoke Community College, was deeply familiar with HCC’s strategic planning process and all the facets of the College’s work to improve student success rates. Rep. Liz Miranda (D-Boston) cast college affordability—or lack thereof—as a social justice issue tied to disproportionate levels of poverty in communities of color.

The new Caucus chairman, Rep. Carlos González (D-Springfield), and I share Puerto Rican roots, so I was delighted to present him with a copy of my recent book, Puerto Ricans in the United States: A Contemporary Portrait1. As I listened to the members’ concerns and to the struggles of their communities to attain social mobility that our country encourages, yet does not always support, I recalled the experience of Puerto Ricans in the United States that are described in the book. Puerto Ricans, U.S. citizens by birth (since 1917) have, since the early part of the 20th century, moved in increasing numbers to the U.S. mainland. Puerto Ricans residing in the United States have been greater in number than those residing on the Island since approximately 2005. Many are located in those very communities represented by members of the Black and Latino Caucus. It is generally not known or acknowledged that in the mid-1970s, when the Puerto Rican population was largely concentrated in New York City, the negative impact of the City’s default fell squarely on Puerto Ricans. “Last hired, first fired” captured their reality in the urban labor market. Rather than following the general path of social mobility of new migrant populations, they were relegated to the bottom of the economic ladder with lower income levels, higher poverty, and less educational attainment at all levels than any other major demographic group in the United States at the time. Some authors referred to Puerto Ricans in the U.S. as the new “urban underclass.”

But circumstances changed for Puerto Ricans in the United States, and by the 1990s, they were on their way to creating a stable middle class. It was increases in educational attainment at all levels that propelled Puerto Ricans and their communities on the road to economic recovery. Two lessons were learned through this experience: (1) Puerto Ricans have always demonstrated a great resilience no matter what obstacles they have faced (now the aftermath of Hurricane Maria); and (2) education remains the primary instrument of migrant populations as they strive for social and economic mobility.

My research tells me that was true of Puerto Ricans in New York in the 1990s can also hold true in Massachusetts today. Through educational opportunity and a systemwide focus on equity, we can indeed help our students of color move from the underclass to the middle class. It will be a privilege to work with members of our Black and Latino Caucus and other legislators to move the equity agenda forward.