The numbers already didn’t look good: Doña Ana Community College had lost 15 percent of its enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020, and 8 percent from spring 2020 to spring 2021. At the two-year institution in southern New Mexico, more than 70 percent of its 8,000 students are Hispanic.
Then Monica Torres, the college’s president, had her institutional-research office look at the data more closely. Doña Ana was down 40 percent among first-generation students, low-income students, and student parents — the college’s most vulnerable populations.
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Then Monica Torres, the college’s president, had an institutional-research official look at the data more closely. Doña Ana was down 40 percent among first-generation students, low-income students, and student parents — the college’s most vulnerable populations.
“That’s like hair-on-fire time,” says Torres, who became president in 2018. This spring, the college’s total enrollment is down another 5 percent.
Torres grew up in Las Cruces, N.M., a city of 100,000 people, about 40 miles from the Mexican border; Doña Ana’s six campuses are spread throughout the city and county.
“You’re not just talking about individual students and the opportunities they’re losing,” Torres says, “but you’re talking about the impact on the community.” If local residents don’t go to college, research suggests that they’ll be worse off financially. They won’t be qualified for many of the region’s future jobs — in emerging fields like solar energy and defense manufacturing, and high-demand fields like home health care and education. The economy will struggle.
Colleges’ undergraduate enrollment is down across the board, at every type of institution, among nearly all demographic groups. But the number of Hispanic students leaving college after a year or two, or deciding not to start, is especially concerning.
After two decades during which Hispanic students have been the fastest-growing demographic group enrolling in college, the Covid-19 pandemic has threatened that progress — among a population with the lowest degree attainment of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Hispanic undergraduate enrollment fell 7 percent from 2019 to 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Percentage-wise, Black and Native American students saw larger enrollment decreases than their Hispanic peers during that time, wrote Nathan D. Grawe, a Carleton College economist and enrollment expert, in a recent Chronicle essay. But the change in the trend among Hispanic students was most striking — because their attendance had been increasing pre-pandemic. Black students’ college-going rates dipped following the 2008 recession and never recovered, Grawe noted: “Temporary disturbances can produce lasting effects.”
For colleges — especially community colleges, which enroll more than half of Hispanic students — any enrollment drop is an alarming, immediate problem. Much of the country is staring down a “demographic cliff,” as the number of high-school graduates is projected to decline after 2025, leading to fewer prospective college students. In most states, Hispanic students are a rapidly growing share of that pool.
While colleges have stemmed the bleeding by using federal Covid relief funding for student support, that money will soon run out.
As the pandemic enters its third year, colleges and community leaders nationwide are on a quest to make sure Hispanic students come back and stay on track. They’re clear about the stakes: The future of higher ed, and the nation’s economic success, depends on it.
“If we were going to close gaps, there was really no room to lose enrollment of Latino students,” says Wil Del Pilar, vice president for higher-education policy and practice at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group. (Hispanic and Latino/a are not the same, but some people use the terms interchangeably; the federal government uses “Hispanic” to track college enrollment.)
But for many Hispanic students — who are more likely than their peers to be low-income and first in their families to go to college — educational plans over the past two years have taken a backseat to family responsibilities.
Early in the pandemic, as blue-collar jobs in manufacturing, service industries, and retail vanished amid economic shutdowns, many Hispanic families suddenly found college financially out of reach, and students put their college plans on hold. Hispanic students are less likely than others to take out loans, preferring to pay for college as they go, says Deborah Santiago, who leads Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit group that supports Hispanic educational attainment.
Even as jobs have come back, many Hispanic young adults who planned to go to college have continued to stay home. They’ve guided siblings through virtual school. They’ve cared for older relatives. They’ve worked to help pay bills.
In general, Santiago says, Hispanic students are more likely to hold pragmatic views about college, believing that its purpose is to help them get a job. For many of those students, the opportunity cost of higher education — given what they’d be forgoing in immediate income, in an economy with rising wages — doesn’t seem worth it, she says.
Michele Siqueiros, founder and president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California-based nonprofit group, doesn’t blame students for sitting out right now. Her own daughter, Alexandra Cuevas, took a break from college last fall. “I’m a college advocate, obviously, and I fully supported her — take the time off,” Siqueiros says. “Because she can see that this is just so different of an experience.”
For many Hispanic students, educational plans over the past two years have taken a backseat to family responsibilities.
After graduating from high school as Covid hit, Cuevas says she decided to start at the two-year Pasadena City College instead of a four-year university. It made sense financially and otherwise, she says, since classes would be online.
But Cuevas struggled. She found it tough to register for classes and use a learning-management system for the first time. Most of her courses were asynchronous, and she wasn’t building relationships with her professors. “I felt really disconnected from actually going to school,” she says. By the end of the fall 2020 semester, Cuevas says, she was “at rock bottom.” She tried to make it through the rest of the academic year, but after failing several classes, she knew she needed to step away from college.
For others, the trauma of losing family members to Covid-19 put college on the back burner. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanic or Latino people have been twice as likely as white people to die from the virus. Students living in multigenerational households have feared exposing family members.
In a crisis, it’s understandable that people have made decisions to try to survive, Santiago says. But the hundreds of thousands of students forgoing college could harm the Hispanic population’s economic prospects for years to come. Research has repeatedly shown the long-term benefits of going to college. On average, college graduates are healthier, happier, live longer, and earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than people who have only a high-school diploma.
The question is, once the pandemic subsides, how many Hispanic students will actually come back?
More than 40 percent of the California State University system’s students are Hispanic, and most of Cal State’s 23 campuses have lost enrollment during the pandemic. The trend could hurt the Cal State system’s ambitious 2025 initiative to increase graduation rates and eliminate equity gaps. “We’re really concerned about it,” says Jeff Gold, assistant vice chancellor for student success initiatives at the system office.
Community colleges, though, have seen the most precipitous drops. In the fall of 2021, California’s community-college system sank below 2 million students for the first time in decades. Between the fall of 2020 and the fall of 2021, nearly half of the 318,000 students who dropped out were Hispanic.
While enrollment has been falling in New Mexico for years, partially a result of the outward migration of prospective college students, Doña Ana’s student population had stabilized, and even grown a little right before Covid hit. Then, suddenly, things changed.
Doña Ana offers a lot of programs that require hands-on learning, like welding, nursing, and automotive repair. Those courses didn’t translate well online, and the college’s limited number of in-person classes had to shrink to accommodate social distancing. Many students are also parents, and they’ve struggled with school shutdowns and lack of child care.
Doña Ana has tried to accommodate students, Torres says. The college set up Wi-Fi hotspots in its parking lots, opened up campus computer labs by appointment, gave out iPads to students, and trained faculty in teaching online.
“I feel like this is a social-justice issue,” she says. As the college’s president, she also has to be realistic: Every percent drop in enrollment represents a loss of roughly $100,000 for the college in revenue from tuition and fees. “We can’t continue to lose enrollment at this pace,” she says.
While Texas, which is tied with California for second-largest share of Hispanic residents in the 50 states, hasn’t seen as large a decline in college enrollment, the majority-Hispanic city of El Paso has struggled. El Paso Community College has lost 15 percent of its enrollment since the spring of 2020.
“For a town like El Paso, there’s a significant economic impact,” says Carlos C. Amaya, interim vice president for student and enrollment services. El Paso’s economy is rebounding from the pandemic, but for that to continue, the city will need a work force that’s prepared for those jobs.
The University of Texas at El Paso has also seen enrollment decline each of the past two years — by 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively, after two decades of increases. About 80 percent of the campus’s students are Hispanic. Covid-19 “hit our community very, very hard,” said Gary Edens, vice president for student affairs.
Edens is hopeful that most of the students who’ve dropped out during the pandemic will come back. “It was never a, ‘I don’t want to continue my higher education,’” he says. “It was, ‘I have to put a pause on this because life issues are happening right now.’”
At four-year public universities in Washington State, the share of undergraduates who are Hispanic grew from 6.5 percent in the fall of 2010 to 12.2 percent in the fall of 2019; at community colleges, that share went from 8.1 percent to 10.4 percent. Meanwhile, the share of white students has fallen every year, and by 2019 they represented fewer than half of students enrolled in the state’s public colleges.
But from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020, when Covid hit, those colleges lost nearly 5,100 Hispanic students — a 14-percent drop.
Eastern Washington University, a regional public institution, has struggled with enrollment for years. In 2019 the university announced plans to try to reach 25-percent Hispanic students by 2023, which would meet the federal definition of a Hispanic-serving institution. HSIs, as they are known, are eligible for millions of dollars in competitive grants.
Some of the students we lost last year, we’ll never get back. And I cry about that.
After years of mostly steady growth in Hispanic undergraduates, Eastern Washington saw a double-digit decrease from the fall of 2020 to the fall of 2021. Over all, the university’s undergraduate headcount dropped 21 percent from 2019 to 2021.
Eastern Washington’s HSI task force wrote in its latest report that the burden would be on the university “to keep pace with the needs and expectations” of Hispanic students. If not, the task force wrote, it’s not just enrollment that would suffer; so would the university’s graduation rate. A university spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Marquette University is also striving to become an HSI. The private university has made progress since starting its HSI Initiative in 2016; 15 percent of its students were Hispanic in the fall of 2021. But while that share has increased, the growth in the number of Hispanic students has stalled in the past two years, and enrollment overall has declined.
Jacqueline Black, director of Hispanic initiatives and diversity and inclusion educational programming at Marquette, told The Chronicle in November that in a difficult financial climate, the university often couldn’t provide enough aid for families that are more likely to be low income. “Our admitted pool is much more diverse than the students that matriculate,” Black said. “We’re simply not able to keep up with the need.”
Northern Essex Community College, in Massachusetts, is faring better than some two-year institutions in the Northeast. After a 7.5-percent drop in Hispanic students in the fall of 2020, enrollment ticked up a year later.
Northern Essex became the first Hispanic-serving institution in the Northeast two decades ago, says Lane Glenn, the college’s president. Forty-three percent of students are now Hispanic — a share that’s been rapidly growing as the white-student population plummets. Glenn says the college has hired more bilingual faculty and staff members, expanded its academic support programs with legislative funding, and created a network of student ambassadors to help guide students in online courses.
Glenn isn’t breathing a sigh of relief yet, though. The decline in Hispanic men’s enrollment is a huge concern. And even if those students do get to campus, the achievement gap is vast: There’s a roughly 30-point difference in retention and graduation rates for white women, who have the highest success rate, and Hispanic men.
When Covid first hit, many college leaders downplayed enrollment concerns, saying students would simply take a gap year and come back. Glenn knew that wasn’t going to happen at Northern Essex, where most students are low-income and vulnerable. “I was going, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be a disaster,’” he says. “Our students, they don’t come back. Or 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.”
“Some of the students we lost last year, we’ll never get back. And I cry about that.”
But after the disruption of the pandemic, colleges can’t just assume that Hispanic students will show up. They will have to be more intentional, says Santiago, of Excelencia in Education.
In interviews, college administrators emphasized how the loss of Hispanic students would affect the local community and economy. But it also affects colleges’ bottom line.
“Institutions have to be pragmatic,” Santiago says. Colleges that serve lots of low-income Hispanic students often don’t have large endowments or foundations to supplement their budgets if there’s not enough tuition revenue. “You cannot get to your enrollment numbers and your national goals without a tactical plan for Latinos,” she says. “You can’t work your way around it.”
To appeal specifically to Hispanic students, experts say colleges should make sure they involve students’ families, with Spanish-language programs for parents who don’t speak English; improve the on-campus environment and experience, both inside and outside the classroom; and adjust course schedules to accommodate part-time jobs or other obligations.
Across the country, many colleges are using variations of a four-pronged approach to recruit, retain, and re-engage Hispanic students: outreach, financial aid, support services, and clearly connecting college to career.
Doña Ana, for instance, is changing its approach to recruitment. Traditionally, staff members have gone to local high schools and community events. “We need something that I think of more like a community organizer, rather than a traditional college recruiter,” says Torres, the president. Her vision for the college’s new “outreach coordinators” is based on the promotoras, a network of community health workers, mostly Mexican American women, who educate their communities and connect them to resources.
Doña Ana’s Avanza program aims to support students with young children and students who don’t speak English at home. The college has also identified roughly 500 students who left between the fall of 2020 and the fall of 2021. Doña Ana first tried to reach them by email, Torres says, but those efforts largely failed — so staff members are trying text messages instead.
Long Beach City College, where 60 percent of students are Hispanic, has scaled up its data collection. Before the pandemic, the two-year college didn’t systematically track which students needed particular kinds of support — for instance, how many students were housing insecure, says Mike Muñoz, the college’s president-superintendent. Today, Muñoz says, “I know I have 70 students who are sleeping in their cars every night. I have that number. It’s real.”
During her time away, Cuevas, the Pasadena City College student, got the mental-health treatment she needed, developed better habits, and found a part-time job. When she decided to come back this spring, she says, her academic counselor in the Puente program, which prepares students to transfer to four-year institutions, helped her chart a path forward.
While a handful of professors were helpful when she was struggling, she doesn’t feel like the institution did much to support her. And when she re-enrolled, she says, she was required to take a “probation workshop” before registering for classes, since she’d failed several courses. The workshop was tone-deaf, she says, and sent the message that if she just worked harder and stopped procrastinating and built some “grit,” she’d be successful.
“It just felt like it was shaming and blaming students for not passing their classes and their circumstances,” Cuevas says.
A spokesman for Pasadena City College said the institution had recently renamed and restructured the mandatory probation workshop; it’s now called the “student success workshop.” This year, the college also began providing every student with a “student success coach” to guide them through their college experience.
Some colleges hope to eliminate administrative barriers permanently — like the practice of dropping students from classes if they owe a fine. The Cal State system is examining that as part of an effort to re-enroll students who have stopped out. “We need to be able to pay our bills,” Gold says. “But at the same time, we need to look at these policies and figure out, can we be more accommodating to our students?”
The College of Lake County, in the Chicago suburbs, saw a double-digit enrollment decline in the 2020-21 academic year. More than 40 percent of students are Hispanic. But things looked better for the two-year institution in the fall of 2021: Hispanic enrollment was up.
The two-year college has hired a new team of college and career navigators to embed in local high schools, focusing mostly on schools with large Hispanic populations, to help guide students smoothly into their community-college courses, says Erin Fowles, dean of enrollment services. The college has also hired two bilingual therapists and a coordinator to oversee activities and programs that are relevant to the Hispanic community.
Wichita State University fared even better, with a 25-percent jump from 2020 to 2021 among Hispanic first-year students. The Kansas institution saw enrollment grow by 3.5 percent overall in the fall of 2021, and is closing in on 15 percent Hispanic representation. That bucks the trend in Kansas, where four-year college enrollment declined 8.6 percent in the past five years.
Wichita State is now the most racially and ethnically diverse university in the state, says Bobby Gandu, assistant vice president for strategic enrollment management and admissions. It’s also more affordable than many other public universities in the region — even for students coming from outside of Kansas, he says, thanks to tuition-discounting efforts.
I know I have 70 students who are sleeping in their cars every night. I have that number. It’s real.
There’s a new donor-funded scholarship program for students from underrepresented groups, and the university is doing more Spanish-language advertising and programming. The number of Hispanic students at Wichita State has doubled in the past 11 years. “We’ve really just tried to demonstrate to the Hispanic community, both in Kansas and outside of it, that we can be a good destination for these students,” Gandu says.
Administrators across the country say that federal Covid relief funding has been essential to enticing students to stay in college or re-enroll after a break.
Institutions have used the money for everything from clearing small debts like library fines and parking tickets to offsetting the cost of child care. Some students who’ve been struggling because of Covid are getting what amounts to free tuition.
Long Beach City College is using the money to offer “student success completion grants.” Say there’s a student who took a full load of courses one semester, but planned to drop out or go part-time to pick up extra hours at work. LBCC will offer financial aid — up to $2,000 a semester for students who take 15 units — to encourage them to persist and graduate on time. LBCC is also providing child-care grants to its large population of student parents.
The college has streamlined its process for requesting emergency aid, providing students with an easy link to the application in Canvas, the college’s course-management system. Students can specify what they need help with, whether it’s mental-health services, tech support, or transportation. While enrollment was down last fall, it was a much smaller decrease than other two-year institutions in the region, Muñoz says.
But after September 2023, relief money will no longer be available. What will colleges do then?
“Here we are, sitting in early 2022, and those funds are just about exhausted,” says Renay Scott, acting provost and vice president for student success at New Mexico State University, where half of the students are Hispanic.
“I sometimes feel like we’re paddling just to stay afloat,” Scott says, “versus paddling to get somewhere.”