Welcome to Race on Campus. This week, Katie Mangan talked to an expert about one of the most troubling flips in the college-enrollment scene: the decline in Latino/a students, a population many see as key to higher education’s future.

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Covid-19 reversed an enrollment trend.

For years, Latina/o students have been the fastest-growing segment of undergraduates, and in the fall of 2019, they were the only demographic to chalk up enrollment gains. But by the fall of 2020, their families disproportionately devastated by Covid-19-related sickness and job losses, the number of Latino first-time freshmen tumbled by 20 percent, according to a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Hispanic students were the only growing enrollment demographic in 2019.
Hispanic students were the only growing enrollment demographic in 2019.
Hispanic enrollment dropped 20 percent in fall 2020.
Hispanic enrollment dropped 20 percent in fall 2020.

That has advocates for Latino students worried that the progress they’ve made in closing enrollment and completion gaps could be seriously jeopardized. The challenges are daunting.

In 2017-18, the most recent year for which figures are available, 24 percent of Latino adults, age 25 and over, had earned at least an associate degree, compared with 46 percent of white adults. A reportbyUnidos U.S. and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that the cost of college, a sudden change in personal finances, a desire not to take on debt, and the need to work more hours drove many Latino students to leave the classroom.

I spoke with Deborah A. Santiago, co-founder and chief executive of Excelencia in Education, which advocates for Latino success in higher education, about what keeps her up at night and what still gives her hope. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you find most disturbing about last fall’s double-digit enrollment drop?

We were, by and large, the only growth population before the pandemic, and we were seeing institutions that really hadn’t focused on us paying a lot more attention. They were coming up with programs to engage our population. I’m worried about losing the momentum we’ve been working so hard on for the last 17 years.

Deborah Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education
Deborah Santiago, chief executive of Excelencia in Education

Enrollment and financial pressures are forcing the community colleges that disproportionately enroll our population to contract, and many now are not investing in the work it takes to reach out and engage us.

It costs more to educate us. We might need more financial aid and more academic support because many are the first in our families to attend college.

Studies have shown that Latino families are more reluctant to take on debt to pay for higher education. How can colleges persuade them that it’s a worthwhile investment?

Some people presume it means we don’t value education when the reality is the pandemic has disproportionately affected our community. When our parents who are blue-collar workers are not employed, it means that those of us who can work do so.

The opportunity cost of going to college is higher for men of color. For many, the opportunity to work in construction or high-paying blue-collar jobs that don’t require a college degree is appealing. Particularly during the pandemic, many felt the need to work 40 hours a week and make a steady paycheck, as opposed to working part time and paying for an education.

One of the biggest strengths and support networks Latino students have is their parents. Colleges that offer orientation often focus on students, but family orientations let everyone know what is expected. It’s not just that you’re taking six hours of classes a week and you have so much time left over to work. They learn about the additional two to three hours required for every hour you’re in class. As a parent or sibling, I need to create space for this student to be successful. Family orientations are also a great way to recruit younger siblings and even parents.

How can colleges respond to the reality that many Latino students just aren’t ready to come back to college?

We need to recognize that, for a semester or two, people are out because they have economic need, or they need a mental-health break or to reassess where they’re heading. We need to pivot to better support the community and economy in which they’re based so when they’re ready to come back, they know we’re ready to serve them. And we need to provide scaffolding of credentials so that a health-care aide making $25,000 can get a raise to $30,000 and a phlebotomist can over time become a lab technician or a nurse. We should work with employers to create more opportunities for employees to take classes part time and get at least partial tuition reimbursement.

The cost of college is clearly a barrier to a lot of Latino students. What other barriers are you concerned about?

The pandemic has drawn attention to the inequities that have long existed. It’s clear when a student has to go into a closet to do their work, or when a disproportionate number of Latinos are taking classes on their phones.

I worry that with the latest financial pressures, higher education might not be able to double down and invest in fixing the structural inequities that existed before the pandemic. For instance, faculty-diversity efforts could take a back seat, which could have ripple effects when students don’t see someone like them they can relate to. We recognize that there will be some contraction, but we are committed to making sure it’s not on the backs of the people who need it the most. —Katherine Mangan

Read up.

  • In the 1920s, Black childhood wasn’t reflected in American popular culture. W.E.B. Du Bois started a magazine to change that. (The Atlantic)
  • Immigrant children have distinct experiences. Not all of their homemade lunches are met with embarrassment or disgust from peers, as movies and TV often depict. (Eater)
  • In the Bay Area, two elderly Asian Americans were attacked. The violence is part of a trend of growing anti-Asian rhetoric since the coronavirus pandemic began. (NPR)
  • During Los Angeles County’s coronavirus surge, eight out of 10 people who died at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital were Hispanic. The group has the highest Covid-19 death rate in the county, followed by Black residents. Here’s what happened when two immigrant fathers were hospitalized. (The New York Times)