SAN JOSE -- Joining hundreds of other Latinos, Robert and Robyn Rodriguez hustled through San Jose State's sprawling campus early Saturday morning with their 10-year-old son, Ceasar, so they could find a seat at a conference intended to boost Latino college attendance and graduation rates.
Ceasar, a student at Horace Mann Elementary in San Jose, is doing well in school. He said he wants a college degree "to get a good job." And his parents share his enthusiasm.
Noting that neither he nor his wife went to college, Robert Rodriguez said, "We're real excited about him having a chance."
Latinos make up 38 percent of California's population and are expected this year to surpass non-Hispanic whites as the state's biggest ethnic or racial group, yet they lag behind many other racial and ethnic groups in higher education.
Although 7 out of 10 Latino high school graduates enroll in college, according to the nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity, they are less likely than whites and people of Asian descent to get into top schools, attend full time and earn a bachelor's degree.
Indeed, a 2011 study by the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley found that just 14 percent of local Latinos have a bachelor's degree compared with 52 percent of non-Latinos.
That's a costly educational gap. By some estimates, people with college degrees over their lifetimes on average earn at least $1 million more than those with just a high-school diploma.
"Education offers a golden opportunity for each and every one of you," San Jose State President Mohammad Qayoumi told the crowd at the university's event center. "Education is the passport for your future."
Nora Campos, speaker pro tem of the state Assembly, encouraged the youngsters in attendance to especially consider degrees in technology-related fields.
"With a college education, you will have an opportunity to work at the Googles of the world, the Facebooks of the world, the Apples of the world," said Campos, a San Jose Democrat. "It is important that we stay engaged in science and math so we can have those jobs."
The event included workshops on everything from how to pick a college to how to get financial aid.
Even the poorest children often can find a way to attend college, said the event's keynote speaker, retired Lt. Col. Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, the highest ranked Latina in the Army's Combat Support Field.
Kickbusch grew up with 10 other siblings in a barrio in Laredo, Tex., where her mother worked as a maid and her father held various odd jobs. At one time, she said, the family had so little money it was forced to live in a railroad boxcar. But despite being raised in poverty, Kickbusch eventually earned a bachelor's degree in law enforcement from Hardin-Simmons University and a degree in cybernetics from San Jose State.
So she invited all of the students to stand and loudly repeat, "I promise I will graduate, I will get my master's. I will get my Ph.D."
To help more Latinos and other minority students get higher-education degrees, many Democrat lawmakers hope to pass a bill putting a measure on November's ballot that would let California's public universities again consider race and ethnicity in admissions -- a practice barred in 1996 by Proposition 209.
The bill passed is now threatened because of opposition from Asian-American groups that fear efforts to enroll more Latinos and blacks might make it harder for Asian-American students to get into the school of their choice.
But like some other parents at the conference, Robert Rodriguez said he'd support reinstating the affirmative-action policy.
"If they could make that fly," he said, "it would give a lot of people a chance to better themselves."