Higher Ed, Latinx Communities, and the Biden Administration’s American Families Plan: The Second of Progressreport.co’s Two-Part Series Exploring Universal Pre-K and Free Community College

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The Bidenadministration’s First 100 Days have finally come to pass and with them,itslong-anticipated American Families Plan which it hopes will help the country recover from the pandemic and put millions of people on the path to a more sustainable middle-class life.  

On the educational front, the plan seeksto improvechildcareand provide universal pre-K tosome ofthenation’syoungestlearners. It also seeks toensure that all Americans have an opportunity topursuea college degree for an increasingly technical workforce.  

Like many civil rights organizations,UnidosUSbelieveseducational policies like these could improve the lives of millions of Americanswho arelow-income orare part ofhistorically underserved groups such as immigrants, communities of color, people with disabilities, and English learners(ELs), as well as thoseidentifying as women or LGBTQ. In fact, in recent years, it has been working in partnership with such groups to broadcast that very message.The following post is the second ofa two-part analysis of the American Families Plan and the ways it intersects with the work of UnidosUS, its Affiliates, and partner organizations 

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The workforce of tomorrow is likely to look very different from the one of today. That’s true of everything from the demographics of the employees and the communities they serve to the way technology and even the pandemic has changed the nature of work. UnidosUS has long said that Latino students will need some form of higher education, and even opportunities for continuing studies in order to attain competitive, well-paid, and culturally relevant roles in the new economy.  

While UnidosUS welcomes the Biden administration’s efforts to improve opportunities for all Americans to attend college, it differs on how best to achieve that.  

“When this nation made 12 years of public education universal, in the last century, it made us the best-educated and best-prepared nation in the world. But the world is catching up. They are not waiting. Twelve years is no longer enough to compete today in the 21st century,” Biden told Congress in his speech.   

To accommodate, Biden said he would offer two years of free community college, increase Pell Grants, and make greater investments in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Tribal colleges, and MinorityServing Institutions. 

UnidosUS believes there are too many pitfalls to stopping short of a debt-free plan that covers all unmet needs for Pell-eligible students at two- and four-year public colleges and universities.  

“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 a 2021 UnidosUS report titled A Path Forward for Latinos: Laying the Groundwork for Equity in Higher Education. It also warnsthat the educational attainment gap between Latinos and Whites “could lead to worsening workforce disparities, occupational segregation, and economic inequality.”  

Based on our research and work with Affiliates and Latino college students, today’s higher education system fails to support our communities’ strengths and needs,” says UnidosUS Education Policy Analyst Amanda Martinez. “We know what policies will put Latino students and families first. The policy agenda lays out a vision that once seemed bold but due to the ongoing crisis is now necessary to ensure Latino educational success.  

But even families with a combined income of $125,000 may still struggle to gather the financial plan needed to send their children to college, so for those students who aren’t Pell-eligible, UnidosUS believes Congress should enact a first-dollar tuition-free plan at public colleges and universities. This would consist of a federal-state partnership that facilitates the transfer of credits within states for students seeking a bachelor’s degree after completing two years of community college.  

The same UnidosUS report noted that in 2018, only 65% of Latino high school students had gone on to college, compared to 71% of White students.  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. 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.   

“We know that approximately 70% of Latino students are the first in their family to go to college and over 64% receive Pell Grants. This means that the majority of Latino students that are going to college need more support—including academic, financial, and social and emotional support—in order to successfully enroll, persist, and complete their degree,” says UnidosUS Education Policy Advisor Roxanne Garza. “Offering students an opportunity to pursue higher education without the burden of taking on debt would help close the college completion gap.” 

Many of the social and economic issues Biden addressed were intersectional, and that’s especially true of concerns around the gender pay gap, which is wider for women of color.  

Biden urged Congress to get the Paycheck Fairness Act on his desk noting that it’s “long past time,” and adding that some two million women have dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic because “too often they couldn’t get the care they need for their family, for their children.” 

During a recent webinar hosted by the UnidosUS partner National Black Child Development Association, Shana Bartley, director of community partnerships for the National Women’s Law noted that an estimated nearly half of the women pushed out of the workforce were Black and Latina, and most had not gone back to work since.  

Biden is hopeful that his plan for universal pre-K and child care would help, however UnidosUS has noted that these programs are often staffed by Black and Latina caregivers making very low wages. In its 2020 report, Latina Teachers and the “BA Challenge:” Impacts and Conditions of Increasing Degree Requirements in Early Childhood Education, continuity is even more challenging in states now requiring early childhood educators to go back to school.  

But UnidosUS is also concerned that teachers and professors at all levels of education need to reflect an increasingly diverse student population. For example, the aforementioned UnidosUS higher education report suggests that Congress establish grants to diversify the faculty and administrator workforce of colleges and universities and provide incentives for greater retention. It also said Congress should appropriate $100 million for Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP) grants (Title II of the Higher Education Act) to help recruit, prepare, and place teachers of color, in addition to supporting them once they are in the classroom. 

A quality college degree continues to provide Latinos with higher wage premiums over their lifetime. However, the payoff is only guaranteed upon completing a postsecondary program, a significant feat for Latino students and their families to climb with little to no resources or guidance,” notes Martínez. “Every year more economically underprivileged students are willing to face the obstacles to securing a degree, it’s time we make it a simpler climb.