COVID-19 Jeopardizes Latinx Students Higher Education Progress

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By UnidosUS Education Policy Advisor Roxanne Garza

Across the nation, Latinx students are beginning their fall semester of college. They might be stepping onto college campuses and into physical classrooms, or they might be opening their laptops from their homes and jumping on virtually. But in some cases, where colleges have made swift decisions to close after reopening for only a week or two, students have been left scrambling to figure out how they will get access to food, housing, or health care that they otherwise don’t have access to—putting in jeopardy students’ futures. Navigating these types of challenges is familiar to Latinx students—particularly low-income and first-generation students—but this shouldn’t continue to be the norm for a growing majority in our nation’s higher education institutions.

Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed unprecedented growth in the number of Latinx students enrolling in and completing college. This is something to celebrate, but between the obstacles of the pandemic, and persistent gaps in the way the US education system serves this population, we’ve got a lot of work to do to keep up that momentum.

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From 2000 to 2018, total college enrollment rates increased for Latinx young adults (from 22% to 36%). And a recent analysis from Excelencia in Education found that degree attainment among Latinx students has also increased in recent years—24% of Latinx adults hold a college degree compared to 19% a decade ago. Despite this progress, stubborn completion gaps persist between Latinx students and their White peers—46% of White adults hold a college degree.

The COVID-19 pandemic puts Latinx students’progress at risk and is likely to exacerbate this long-standing completion gap just when they were starting to catch up. A recent survey of U.S. high school students planning to attend a four-year university found that 36% of incoming Latinx freshmen were more likely to change their minds about attending their original college choices due to COVID-19—this is compared to 21% of White and 9% of Black students. And 32% of incoming Latinx freshmen reported they will not return to college next term due to COVID-19, compared to 22% of White and 10% of Black students.

At the same time, 38% of returning Latinx students are worried about contracting COVID-19 if they return to campuses. In fact, nearly half (49%) of Latinx freshmen would prefer to stay home and take all classes online. It is no wonder that students are concerned—a New York Times survey of more than 1,500 colleges and universities has brought to light at least 26,000 cases. But the online learning landscape for many institutions, and indeed for the students themselves, is a new one. Challenges with technology and connectivity, as well as different learning styles could all impact how students will fare. This could have an influence on their performance and their persistence.

This has serious implications for the progress that the Latinx student population was making in terms of higher education enrollment, persistence, and completion. We know that Latinx students are extremely sensitive to financial volatility, and this often gets in the way of them staying in college and completing their degrees. A recent study conducted by UnidosUS found that Latinx students experience persistent financial insecurity that affects their decisions at every step of their higher education. With 64% of returning Latinx students’ families having been financially impacted by COVID-19 (compared to 48% of White students), Latinx students are more likely to be in a position where they need to make trade-offs between covering basic needs and paying for college.

If we want to avoid setting back millions of Latinx college students, Congress must act to provide the much-needed relief that all students and recent graduates need.

In March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provided more than $6 billion in emergency financial aid relief to college students experiencing COVID-19-related disruptions to cover a range of expenses including, food, housing, health care, technology, and course materials. Even though the CARES Act made no statements about excluding certain students, the U.S. Department of Education released a regulation that prohibits the 450,000 undocumented students—in addition to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Temporary Protected Status, international, justice-impacted, and other students who have not applied for financial aid—enrolled in today’s U.S. postsecondary system from accessing critical emergency financial aid provided to help cover costs brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s critical that any future COVID-19 relief measures make no such exclusions and explicitly prohibit the Secretary of Education from discriminating against students that may be the most in need.

Additionally, even though Congress paused student loan payments until September 30th, and President Trump’s executive order extends that pause through the end of the year, student loan borrowers need tangible relief in the form of debt cancellation. Six months into the pandemic, and with no immediate end in sight, Congress must act now to provide the emergency aid that will help students weather the pandemic without losing ground on their hard-fought progress.