New Study Finds Latinos Struggling to Begin or Stay on Higher Education Path

Advocates worry pandemic will make college completion harder for Latino students

WASHINGTON, DC—Higher education is more accessible than ever but increasingly difficult to navigate for the nearly 3.4 million Latinos enrolled in colleges and universities nationwide, according to a report released today by UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza): Following Their Dreams in an Inequitable System: Latino Students Share Their College Experience.

The qualitative study, informed by the perspectives of Latino students and parents from a diverse set of backgrounds, provides a glimpse at the factors that characterize the Latino college experience. The study also spotlights the systemic and institutional barriers that tend to undermine Latinos’ college success and economic mobility and offers policy prescriptions to strengthen the higher education system for underserved students.

The study observed the following:

  • First-Generation Status Shapes the College Experience for Many Latino Students: Seven out of every 10 Latinos enrolling in college are first-generation students and lack the family knowledge needed to understand the financial aid process.
  • Persistent Financial Insecurity Affects Latino Students’ Decisions at Every Step of Higher Education: Latino college students are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have lower median incomes and less familial wealth, making college affordability an important consideration in their higher education path.
  • Latino Students Thrive When Targeted Institutional Supports Are Accessible: Access to support programs in high school and in college like the federally funded TRIO and College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) are central to Latinos’ success in college.

The study also calls attention to troubling trends in the U.S. higher education system that contribute to low rates of college retention and completion among Latinos compared to their White peers. Latino collegegoers, who are overwhelmingly first-generation, members of mixed-status households and from low-income backgrounds, are more vulnerable to rising college costs, ballooning student debt and disinvestment in public colleges and universities. This situation that has only been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and the effects of the fast-moving crisis on Latinos’ health, finances and higher education outcomes. An August poll conducted by Latino Decisions on behalf of UnidosUS and SOMOS recently found that 37 percent of Latinos are considering not enrolling in college or deferring enrollment altogether.

“This report serves as an important reminder that the path to higher education for Latino students has always been fraught with challenges and barriers—long before the onset of COVID. Despite progress, more must be done to make our higher education system truly equitable for our most vulnerable students. And it is in our nation’s best interest to do so. These are individuals who will shape our future workforce and contribute to our country’s economic recovery. One million Latinos are estimated to enter the postsecondary system by 2026. It is important that they enter a higher education system that is committed to expanding access and opportunity for all students no matter their background or unique circumstances,” said Eric Rodriguez, Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at UnidosUS.

The research is comprised of eight listening sessions that UnidosUS conducted in collaboration with several of its community-based Affiliate organizations in California, Florida, Minnesota, Tennessee and Washington, DC prior to the coronavirus pandemic. A total of 78 individuals participated in these sessions, which included 15 in-depth individual interviews of Latino students at various points in their educational journey. While this sample is not representative of every U.S. Latino experience, it does include a diverse set of circumstances and backgrounds.

The full report can be found here.