Esther Cepeda

Hispanics in the United States have always been paradoxical — both ultra-invested in their heritage yet proudly all-American; more law-abiding in the immigrant stages of life in the U.S. yet more likely to brush with the police in subsequent generations.

Another paradox is that no matter how demonized or discriminated against, Latinos continue to be more likely than the general U.S. public to believe in the American dream.

For 77 percent of Hispanics, compared with 62 percent of the total U.S. population, it’s an article of faith that hard work will pay off; a similar proportion believe that each successive generation will be better off than the one before, the Pew Research Center says. But the optimism is colored by realism — 74 percent said attaining the American dream is difficult for people like them.

And if we look at the generally assumed best path to socioeconomic mobility — a college education — that particular calculation is spot-on.

By all accounts, Hispanics are underrepresented on college campuses. And even the academic stars struggle: Latinos with high SAT/ACT test scores have similar rates of college enrollment to whites, but only 63 percent of them complete a degree or other credential, compared to 78 percent of white students with similar test scores, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent research institute.

Money is an issue, obviously, since parental lack of a college degree is highly correlated with low household income. But there’s also no worn path to follow, leaving many first-timers without the benefit of family who could show them the ropes.

It gets worse.

There are 14 million working students enrolled in school, and about 6 million (43 percent) are low-income. Of these, 47 percent are first-generation college-goers, and 25 percent are Latino, according to Georgetown.

These students are more likely to be enrolled in certificate programs and attend two-year community colleges or for-profit colleges than higher-income working students.

And all of this leads to low-income working students being less likely to earn a credential overall.

You won’t be a bit surprised to learn that Hispanic (and black) adults who graduate college owing money on student loans have a significantly lower net worth at age 30 than students who didn’t borrow. According to a study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, student loans hamper low-income student graduates’ ability to convert their hard-won educations into wealth for longer than previously thought. In fact, they have $11,780 less in financial assets and nearly $39,600 less in nonfinancial assets than their peers by age 30, researchers found.

Alleviating this low-income, first-generation Latino encumbrance to social mobility will require two things.

First, we need to recognize that it’s nearly impossible to “work your way through college” like people once did — the average price of an undergraduate degree has risen roughly 161 percent from $39,643 in 1987 to $103,616 in 2016.

Second, these students of color need more scholarships, fellowships, grants, lower-interest loans and other financial supports.

Don’t think there’s nothing in it for you.

Georgetown estimates that the U.S. takes an annual hit of about $400 billion in lost wages, plus costs of lost productivity, because every year approximately 500,000 students who are in the top half of their class simply don’t complete college.

A well-educated populace ready to fill high-tech jobs and other positions that require higher education helps businesses, communities and nearly everyone else. Ultimately, we all benefit when disadvantaged young people are enabled to reach their potential — it’s a little piece of the American dream for all of us.