By Nicole Acevedo

For California to maintain its standing as the fifth-largest economy in the world, the state has to produce at least 1.65 million college graduates by 2030. But it won't reach this goal without Latino educational success, and many of the state's schools are not preparing young Hispanics for higher education.

Hispanics are intrinsically tied to the state's future — by 2060, almost half of California’s population will be Latino “and disproportionately young,” according to "The State of Higher Education for Latinx in California,' a report by The Campaign for College Opportunity.

Nearly 40 percent of all 38.6 million people living in California are Latino, including over half of the state’s K-12 student population and four in 10 college undergraduates.

“You can’t ignore such a significant number and not care about their educational success,” Michele Siqueiros, president of The Campaign for College Opportunity and co-author of the report, told NBC News.

Some good trends

California has seen a spike in college-ready Latinos who graduate high school.

In 2016, 86 percent of 19-year-olds had a high school diploma or equivalent and 39 percent prepared for college, according to the report.

Over 1.3 million Latinos were enrolled in college in California, a 91 percent increase from 2000.

In California community colleges, Latino completion went from 38 percent in 2010-11 to 42 percent in 2016-17.

However, although more Latinos are attending universities, only 18 percent of Latino adults in the state have a degree — a rate that’s lower than any other racial or ethnic group.

Education experts worry about this trend, not just in California but across the country.

“While Latino college-going is improving, change must happen faster to increase the numbers of Latino college graduates,” said Sarita Brown, president of Excelencia in Education, an organization based in the nation’s capital that measures Hispanic college completion and analyzes best practices in colleges and universities that help increase graduation rates.

Changes need to happen quickly, since gaps in the graduation rates between Latino and white college students have grown over the last decade. For example, the gap in the number of Bachelor’s degrees among Latinos compared to whites went from 30 to 31 percentage points in the last 10 years.

Little mentoring, college prep, college transfers

The report found stark differences between California high schools that serve Latino students and those that serve predominantly white students, including a differential of 100 points in SAT scores and almost double the number of students at Hispanic high schools.

The report also found a lack of mentoring programs and recommended increasing these, especially for minority students. Only 39 percent of the state's Latino high school students had completed the paperwork to be able to attend a four-year state college, and too many Hispanics were enrolled in remedial programs.

Though an increasing number of Hispanic students are transferring from community colleges to public four-year state universities, the report criticized current numbers — only two percent of Latino students transferred after two years in a community college and less than a third (31 percent) transferred in six years.

One of the recommendations is to strengthen and facilitate these transfer programs.

An emphasis on transferring Latino students to four-year institutions — and then monitoring college completion — has long been advocated by groups like Excelencia.

“Colleges and universities need to go beyond enrolling Latino students,” said Deborah Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education during a recent conference in Washington, DC. “Institutions need to respond to changing demographics and serve their Latino students more effectively.”

Another issue, the California report found, was cost. While the state is generous with financial aid — almost two-thirds of community college students, for example, pay no tuition — Latino students often struggle with paying for books and housing.

More than 65 percent of all Latino students, who comprise the biggest and fastest-growing group in higher education, currently attend Hispanic Serving Institutions or HSIs, defined as colleges and universities where more than a quarter of the student population is Hispanic.

But according to Siqueiros, an increase in Latino college degree attainment — in California and nationwide — requires higher education institutions and policy makers to make sure universities “become Hispanic Graduating Institutions, not just Hispanic Serving.”

Nationally, Excelencia in Education launched an initiative last month called The Seal of Excelencia. It seeks to credential colleges and universities that use evidence-based practices and data as well as leadership that is actively committed to graduating more Latinos.

“It demonstrates the commitment to raise the bar and measure how effectively institutions serve Latino students through degree completion,” said Brown.

Educators see California as a test case — it needs 60 percent of its adults to have a college degree, and this means putting a focus on Latino completion.

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