Pandemic may impede Latine students’ college pursuits, experts warn

Recent enrollment and financial aid numbers are fueling concerns that the pandemic may be jeopardizing Latine students’ college aspirations—potentially reversing years of progress in their representation on college campuses. 

As of 2017, Latine students accounted for almost one in five U.S. residents enrolled in college, up significantly from one in 25 as of 1976. Still, less than 25 percent of the nation’s Latine adults hold an associate degree or higher, compared with 46 percent of white adults—and pandemic-related challenges threaten to further widen that attainment gap, The Washington Post reports.  

Concerning enrollment, financial aid data

Research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) shows that the number of Latine students enrolled in undergraduate programs fell by more than 5 percent this fall. NSCRC further notes that community colleges—where more than 40 percent of Latine college students pursue a degree—have reported a nearly 28 percent drop-off in Latine student enrollment.

Related: ‘Alarming’ nationwide exodus of low-income college students, students of color >

Fewer Latine students also appear to be applying for federal financial aid this year. Compared with last year, as of January 15, the U.S. Department of Education had received 18 percent fewer financial aid applications from students at high schools where at least three-fourths of students are Latine, reports The Post.

Pandemic looms over college dreams

Deborah Santiago, chief executive of Excelencia in Education, says that students from Latine communities remain interested in continuing their education, but “the reality is we are still disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the trade offs are real.”

“Students are having to prioritize supporting their family,” she says, noting the financial strain faced by millions of Latine families due to the pandemic. “Going to college is another way to do that, but the immediate need has superseded the longer term goal.” 

Related: Common App sounds alarm about dip in first-gen, low-income applicants >

Whether students intend to delay college temporarily or indefinitely, data show that high school graduates’ chance of continuing their education drastically decreases if they shelve college applications in their senior year. 

Related: How could COVID-19 affect college attainment in the long-term? >

Virtual learning makes college seem distant more than ever

Competing family demands; health scares; the challenges of virtual learning; and separation from meaningful interactions among students, teachers, and counselors all have taken a toll on students’ academic achievement. 

“When I’m talking to them [students], I can hear the weight of their sadness and pain,” Amanda Peterson, a teacher in Fresno, California, told the Post. Peterson instructs a high school course called Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID), which aims to increase college attendance among students of marginalized identities. 

“Shame—some of them feel shame about their grades, and that’s been the hardest part,” she adds. In a typical year, 99 percent of Peterson’s students, most of whom identify as Hispanic, go on to attend college. This year, almost 20 percent of her students have at least one D or failing grade. 

Ricardo Calvario, a 17-year-old California high school student who originally aimed to attend a school in the University of California system, expressed similar sentiments. “I’m trying my best but online school is just holding me down. After the pandemic happened, I just couldn’t do it,” he told the Post, noting that he has needed to focus instead on contributing financially, covering household chores, and caring for his sister while his parents work. 

Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education at the Education Trust, warns that the number of students abandoning their postsecondary plans could signal a freeze in social and economic progress for the Latine community. 

“What’s at stake is Latinos will never move up to the types of professions with benefits, retirement plans, the type of long-term security that a college education provides,” he says. 

Advocates in higher ed are hopeful that the federal government will take action—for instance, by doubling the maximum Pell grant for students from low-income households and adopting universal tuition-free public higher education—to remove the financial barriers standing in the way of Latine students’ college success.

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