Getting the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants to finish high school and go to college is crucial to the economy as much of the nation’s workforce edges toward retirement.

"Hispanics are coming of age in an aging society," says Marta Tienda, a Princeton University professor who headed a panel that studied the impact of the nation’s 41 million Hispanics. "Education is the bottom line." The study was released by the non-profit National Research Council. 

By 2030, about 25% of white Americans will be at retirement age or older, compared with 10% of Hispanics. Although a growing number of Hispanics have reached the middle class, the report says they continue to lag economically as a group because of a continued influx of low-skilled immigrants. At the same time, demand is rising for a better-educated U.S. workforce.

"Perhaps the most profound risk facing Hispanics is failure to graduate from high school," the report says. Hispanics have the highest high school dropout rate of any ethnic or racial group in the USA. 

The report also cites low enrollment rates in four-year colleges and poor English skills. "These trends bode ill for Hispanics," the report warns. "Failure to close Hispanics’ education and language gap risks compromising their ability to both contribute to and share in national prosperity."

Although the report stops short of making specific recommendations, it calls for investment in education and social programs. "We hope it triggers a lot of alarms," Tienda says.

The report comes at a time of intensifying debate over whether undocumented immigrants should be granted certain rights, including temporary work visas, driver’s licenses and in-state tuition breaks.

"If you’re the L.A. (Los Angeles) Unified School District, how can you try to advance the prospects of your poorly-educated student body when it’s constantly expanding with people from abroad?" asks Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group based in Washington, D.C., that advocates enforcement of immigration laws. "That’s why immigration control is extraordinarily important," he says.

Stopping immigration won’t reduce the number of Hispanics already here, says Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center. "Regardless of what happens to immigration flows, there is a huge second generation of Latinos," Suro says.

The challenge, he adds, is getting mostly white voters "to invest in the education of another group."

How Latinos fare academically will shape the nation’s future, says Melissa Lazarin, senior education policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights group. "We need to ensure that they’re well-educated and they get the tools that they need to contribute."