If the United States is to maintain its status as a leader in the global economy, it will have to drastically step up its efforts to train the increasing number of Latinos entering the workforce in the next few decades, says a new UnidosUS report on higher education.
“Latinos are projected to comprise 30% of the nation’s workforce by 2050 and will require some type of degree or credential to contribute to our rebuilding efforts,” states the report. It also warns that the educational attainment gap between Latinos and Whites “could lead to worsening workforce disparities, occupational segregation, and economic inequality.”
The report, A Path Forward for Latinos: Laying the Groundwork for Equity in Higher Education, was developed with the support of the Lumina Foundation and The Joyce Foundation, and it lays out eight concrete goals that the Department of Education, as well as federal and state leaders can consider to ensure long-term success for Latino children. It published in late December, just days before the incoming Biden administration named Latino educator Miguel Cardona as its pick for Secretary of Education. And as the newly arrived 117th Congress is beginning to outline their policy priorities, members will have yet another opportunity to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, a law that is supposed to be renewed every five years but has not gone through such an update since 2008.
“The state of higher education for Latinos today fails to provide these students with the necessary admissions access, financial resources, and academic and cultural supports to propel them past admittance and into graduation,” states the report.
How is this possible when data shows Latino enrollment rates in institutions of higher education have been rising for the past two decades?
Most challenges revolve around Latino students’ ability to stay enrolled once they meet the challenges of getting into college. In 2018, only 65% of Latino high school students had gone on to college, compared to 71% of White students. As of 2016, about 70% of Latino college students were the first in their family to go to college, compared to 48% of their White peers. By 2019, only 19% of Latinos aged 25 or older had a college degree, compared to 36% of Whites, and the default rates for Latinos borrowing money to attend college were also higher than those of Whites. Among those who first began attending college in 2011, 18% of Latinos had defaulted within the first three years, compared to just 12% among Whites. To make matters worse, the challenges of studying during the pandemic have caused a 6% drop among Latinos seeking and completing a post–secondary degree.
“The problem is clear. Once Latinos enroll in our nation’s postsecondary institutions, they not only take on an academic challenge but are required to simultaneously become expert financial managers, postsecondary navigators, and family supporters all on their own,” says UnidosUS Education Policy Analyst Amanda Martinez. “It is no fault of their own that completing college becomes a distant and far-reaching dream to achieve, especially amidst minimal financial support from federal, state, and institutional decisionmakers.”
With that in mind, Martínez worked with education policy experts from the Education Trust, California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, Center for Responsible Lending, and the Institute for College Access and Success and Excelencia in Education to lay out the report’s eight goals and actions.
Among other requests, the report calls on Congress to create a plan that goes further than covering a portion of college expenses through Pell grants but introduces a debt–free college proposal that ensures all expenses would be covered to avoid any debt. While the plan prioritizes covering students who receive a Pell Grant, since they often are the most economically disadvantaged, it will also create a free public college and university plan for low-income students who don’t qualify for the Pell grant. Congress could also streamline the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), by simplifying the language, clarifying flexibilities for families with foreign-born or mixed-status families, and by removing the requirement that students fill out a new one each year, provided their family income hasn’t changed.
The report says Congress could incentivize colleges and universities to diversify their student population by admitting more high-achieving, low-income students on Pell Grants and de–emphasizing standardized admissions tests that often serve as a barrier for applicants who are low-income, students of color, or the first in their families to attend college. Congress could also increase investments in programs that provide specialized support for diverse students, and with that, it could provide supports and incentives to diversify teachers and staff at institutions of higher education. It could also reinstate the gainful employment rule repealed by the Trump administration, a rule that protects students from predatory lending practices at for-profit institutions by ensuring that graduates don’t incur more student loan debt than they’re able to pay off in their respective fields.
The report is also pushing Congress to improve student loan forgiveness for students who go on work in public service, and to discharge student debt as part of bankruptcy proceedings. And more urgently, it wants to see up to $10,000 in loan forgiveness to ease financial hardship brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
States can come alongside these efforts by bolstering their own financial aid investments and distributing those funds directly to students instead of institutions, and they can make public disaggregated postsecondary data surrounding these investments and the outcomes they produce.
Meanwhile, the Department of Education could begin a newer, more progressive and inclusive era by requiring that all institutions collect and analyze data about student outcomes such as enrollment, retention, completion rates, and loan repayment and default. It can also hold institutions to a higher standard of accreditation based on the reporting of these rates.
“The policy agenda is revealed at such an opportune time especially as the Biden administration has signaled higher education as a top policy priority. On President Biden’s first day in office, the federal pause on student loan payments was extended until September 30, 2021,” notes Martinez. “While a sign of relief for current student loan borrowers, millions of Latino students are still looking for relief to endure the economic storm that is continuing to wreak chaos in their educational pursuits. Luckily, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) presents itself as the necessary vehicle to provide relief and opportunity for students. It is up to the administration to take up the policy agenda and work with Congress to pass a comprehensive HEA now more than ever.”