AS EARLY as the year 2010, Hispanics may become the U.S.' largest racial minority.
Even sooner, possibly by the year 2000, most of the country's children will be Hispanic.
This is why it is so disconcerting that while high school dropout rates of most racial and ethnic groups have declined over the past generation, that of Hispanics has shown little sign of decreasing.
According to a U.S. General Accounting Office report, in 1990 the dropout rate for Hispanics between the ages of 16 and 24 was about 30 percent.
That's 66 percent higher than the next largest group, African Americans, who had an 18 percent dropout rate. Whites had a 10 percent dropout rate, one-third the rate of Hispanics.
At first glance, these numbers may not appear alarming. But when considered in relation to the labor force, they take on a new importance, especially for Hispanic males.
In 1993, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 12 percent of white male workers in the labor force and 18.5 percent of African-American male workers were high school dropouts. But an outrageous 41.6 percent of Hispanic male workers had quit school.
This country has entered an era in which a post-secondary education is necessary for more than half the occupations that will become available in the future.
The competition for jobs is fierce. It is not surprising, then, that Hispanic male workers hold the lowest-skilled and lowest-paying jobs.
Of Hispanic males in managerial positions, only 8 percent are dropouts. Of Hispanic males in farming, forestry and fishing, 77.6 percent are high school dropouts.
With a median full-time annual salary of $13,435, Hispanic males without a high school diploma make 39 percent of what Hispanic male college graduates earn -- $34,099 annually. Only 9.6 percent of employed Hispanic males are college graduates.
While the U.S. economy continues to wax and wane, worrying even the wealthiest people, many of the children of today's working poor are not being educated and are sealing their fates: futures in low-wage, low-skill careers.
Understanding why the dropout rate is so high among Hispanic males lies partly in understanding Hispanic culture.
It is very common in poor Hispanic households for children to drop out of school to help support the family by working at part-time or full-time jobs.
The highest dropout rate for 16- to 17-year-olds occurs in households at or below the poverty level.
Gender also plays a role: Sixty percent of the 1.15 million Hispanic dropouts are males.
But men participate in the Hispanic civilian labor force at a ratio of 2-to-1 with women. This is largely because of a cultural tradition that makes the male the primary, if not the only, breadwinner.
Not being able to speak English well is also a major contributing factor for Hispanic high school dropouts. In fact, the more limited the English skills, the more severe the dropout rate.
Those who speak English very well drop out at a rate of 9 percent. Those who do not claim any proficiency have a 52 percent dropout rate. Of total Hispanic dropouts, 40 percent speak English "not well" or "not at all."
Because so few schools offer bilingual classes, the problem continues to be a major obstacle in educating Hispanics.
Once a student has left school, there are many hurdles that make re-entry seem impossible.
According to the GAO, more than half the dropouts in its study had to complete at least three years to graduate, many continued to have job and family responsibilities, and four out of 10 could not speak English well or at all.
Dropping out does not have to be the answer for 1.15 million Hispanics -- or for anyone, regardless of how difficult staying in school may seem.
There are many innovative approaches currently being used in the United States. For example, both New York and Florida boast high school programs for students who work during the day.
These school systems offer regular high school classes on weekday evenings and on weekends.
Another dropout deterrent is encouraging Hispanics to learn English language skills through bilingual classes and English as a Second Language courses.
In an age of tight budgets, we should keep in mind that such spending on education will help produce more people who earn wages to support their families and reduce the number in poverty.
In 1992, the estimated lifetime earnings for a high school dropout were $608,810.
Compare that figure with the earnings of a high school graduate, $820,870, and a college graduate, $1.4 million.
Looking at those numbers in terms of their revenue implications, the difference in lifetime income for dropouts vs. high school graduates when applied to Hispanics yields a U.S. federal income tax loss of $4.2 billion.
As the United States struggles to maintain its economic stature in the world, and Hispanics continue to be left behind, the question is: Can the United States afford to let such a fast-growing sector of the work force continue to go uneducated?
Joseph A. Fernandez, formerly New York City Public Schools chancellor, is president of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington. He wrote this for the New York Times.