Colleges and communities across the nation are grappling with pandemic-related declines in Latinx student enrollment, hoping to minimize the long-term effects on the Latinx community, the higher education sector, and the nation’s economic outlook. In its 2022 Trends Report, The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that Latinx enrollment fell by seven percent between fall 2019 and fall 2021—an especially alarming change in trajectory, given that Latinx student enrollment had been growing rapidly for over a decade.
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that, between fall 2009 and fall 2019, total college enrollment decreased 5 percent, but Latinx student college enrollment increased by 48 percent.
A brief downturn or a sustained change?
Undergraduate college enrollment has declined across every sector and almost every demographic group since COVID-19 hit. Yet, the change in enrollment among Latinx students has been especially worrisome, given existing achievement gaps. The Latinx population has the lowest degree attainment of any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. Around 51 percent of Latinx students graduate from four-year public universities within six years, compared with 70 percent of white students.
Some educators hope the drop-off in Latinx college enrollment will be temporary. Gary Edens, vice president of student affairs at The University of Texas at El Paso has seen a three to five percent decrease in Latinx student enrollment, but is hopeful that it reflects a short term reaction to the pandemic. “It was never a, ‘I don’t want to continue my higher education. It was, ‘I have to put a pause on this because life issues are happening right now.’”
However, Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College, the first Hispanic-serving institution in the Northeast, laments, “Some of the students we lost last year, we’ll never get back. And I cry about that.” Glenn says that even “if they do come back, they come back later. And if they do, they typically have more obligations, which makes it harder for them to complete.”
Pandemic exacerbating obstacles to a degree
Several factors have long impeded Latinx students’ path to a degree, including financial hurdles. According to Deborah Santiago of Excelencia in Education, Latinx students are less likely to take out loans for college, preferring instead to pay for college on their own. If they do take out loans, they are 2.5 times more likely to default on those loans than white students. Santiago also notes that some students see college as impractical, preferring instead to support their families and their immediate needs rather than spend money to attend college.
COVID-19 has exacerbated these trends. When the pandemic led to job losses, some Latinx students took time off from school to support their families. Others stepped away from school as they lost family members to COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Latinx people have been twice as likely as white people to die from COVID-19.
Preventing long-term losses
A sustained increase in the number of Latinx students delaying or forgoing a college education, however, will have ripple effects on the Latinx population, higher education, and the stability of the U.S. economy. As The Hechinger Report recently noted, college graduates earn more money, live longer lives, and are happier than people without a college education. Lower enrollment also hurts colleges’ bottom line and their ability to fund their long-term goals. Likewise, as the country continues to recover economically from COVID-19, it will require a robust college-educated workforce. “Institutions have to be pragmatic,” Santiago says. “You cannot get to your enrollment numbers and your national goals without a tactical plan for Latinos. You can’t work your way around it.”
Colleges and universities are taking steps to ensure a rebound in Latinx enrollment. Some have had success by investing in Spanish-language outreach and advertising, strengthening and expanding support services on campus, creating new scholarships and sources of emergency aid, engaging high school students, and connecting a college education to career advancement. Many of these initiatives, however, have relied on federal COVID relief funding, throwing into question how colleges will manage what might be a longer-term enrollment decline among Latinx students.