Study Tackles Issues of Latino College Access, Completion - Higher Education
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Study Tackles Issues of Latino College Access, Completion

by Lois Elfman

Utilizing in-depth interviews with Latino college graduates from six U.S. cities, UnidosUS collaborated with the Center for Community Capital at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to present a report examining issues of access, affordability and long-term success.

While the Latino community understands the importance and impact of higher education, they must navigate an educational system that does not fully serve the needs of its students, researchers said.

According to the report, titled “It Made the Sacrifices Worth It: The Latino Experience in Higher Education,” the rate of enrollment in higher education for Latinos ages 18 to 24 has increased by 15 percentage points from 24 percent to 39 percent over the past decade.

“We’re seeing more Latinos than ever enrolling in college,” said Samantha Vargas Poppe, associate director for policy and advocacy at UnidosUS.

Despite this optimistic statistic, Latino students are still falling short in completion.

“Latino students are facing unique challenges and they’re not faring as well as their peers in the post-secondary space,” said Vargas Poppe. “We wanted to make sure that stakeholders have the information needed to create a system that better serves all students.”

Debt from student loans can be high, which makes Latino students less likely than White students to complete their postsecondary programs. Many students also juggle multiple obligations, including school, work and family.

Latino students who do obtain a bachelor’s degree tend to earn less than White counterparts once they go to work.

“Latinos are a little more averse to borrowing compared to other racial and ethnic groups,” said Deborah A. Santiago, co-founder, COO and vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education. “Financial literacy and making students aware of their options is important.”

Santiago added that “a focus on retention to completion has to be a priority. That means institutions can do more to help our students be retained to completion.”

The report spotlighted the personal experiences of 30 students from Austin, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Antonio. UnidosUS’s network of almost 300 community-based organizations helped identify the study participants.

Bringing student voices to the issue of higher education was a highlight of the report for Santiago. To have authentic stories as opposed to just discussion of policy issues adds depth to the conversation, she said.

“We wanted to get behind the data and hear directly from our students who were successful in making their way through the American post-secondary,” added Vargas Poppe. “Story collection and qualitative research was the way to get to that richness in these personal stories. They can help point to those changes in policies and programs that should be made to better serve our students.”

Economic issues such as loans have wide-ranging implications, including emotional and psychological stress, the study found. Thirty-one percent of Latino student borrowers leave school with debt and no degree. Also, Latinos with bachelor’s degrees earn 21 percent less than their White peers over their lifetimes and 31 percent of Latino student-borrowers leave school with debt and no degree.

Santiago noted that leaving college prior to degree completion is a huge challenge, which she said is well articulated in the report. What needs to be further examined are the choices Latino students make due to debt aversion, such as going part-time, stopping and restarting and attending multiple institutions.

There are state and federal programs that provide a range of services and organizations such as the Hispanic Scholarship Fund that provide information and services to aspiring and enrolled Latino college students and their families about navigating the college application process and financial aid.

Vargas Poppe said increased funding for government programs could have far-reaching positive impact.

“We need to gear up and look for broader reforms at the federal level and increased investment in higher education to make sure that access, affordability and completion become a reality for all these students,” she said. “The deficiency is not on our students. The system as a whole is not working.”

Vargas Poppe called for more affordable higher education and more transparent financial aid with more readily accessible information. There also need to be culturally relevant support systems such as mentors, as well as comprehensive academic support. At present, students typically have to pay for bridge programs that don’t earn college credits.

“A lot of our students are coming from under-resourced high schools and coming to college unprepared academically,” said Vargas Poppe. “Remedial education has to be reformed.”

Vargas Poppe hopes individuals will make their voices heard on these issues. UnidosUS will be holding listening sessions with affiliate associations to gather their reactions to the report and hear what they need.

As documented in numerous reports over the past decade, in order to meet the 21st-century demands of the American economy, there need to be more college graduates. Given that Latinos comprise a significant and rising percentage of the American population, there is a corresponding need for more Latino college graduates.

“Our policymakers need to understand that our future economy rides on Latinos earning an education beyond high school,” Vargas Poppe said. “Our current system includes too many barriers for our students, and it’s time for them to address these. That includes a federal investment in K–12 education to make sure our students are getting that quality education needed to prepare them for college.”

To achieve their goals, Vargas Poppe said Latino students need support systems outside of their immediate families. Whether these are programs for first-generation or low-income students, whether they are administered by the state or federal government or by institutions, these are essential to student success.

The recommendations in the report are broad and general. Going forward, there need to be nuanced details about what works, said Santiago.

“Building on that to get more rigor in the policies that work for Latino students would be a good next step,” said Santiago. “We try to look at evidence-based practices to say, ‘When you look overall, can you disaggregate how Latinos are performing with things like federal work-study programs?’”

The ultimate goal is to build on Latino college completion and meet the needs of the American economy.

“Most students said it was worth it and said that they achieved upward mobility compared to their parents,” said Vargas Poppe. “We know our students are doing everything they can to persist and be successful.”

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