Latinx Students are Dropping Out of College Almost As Fast As They’re Enrolling. Two College Leadership Fellows Reflect on What to Do About It

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Year after year, hundreds of thousands of Latinx and first-generation college students head off to institutions of higher education with the goal of attaining a degree that can improve their chances of economic prosperity and increased engagement in American society.

According to UnidosUS’s recent report A Path Forward for Latinos: Laying the Groundwork for Equity in Higher Education, Latinos will make up  30% of the nation’s workforce by 2050, and they will require some type of degree or credential to contribute to efforts to rebuild the economy after the pandemic.

Over the last few months, two college students enrolled in UnidosUS’s Líderes Avanzando Fellowship Program have been exploring the barriers to getting that education. The following blogs by fellows Luis León Medina and Andrew Mendoza are a product of their research and personal experiences.

A Request for Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona: Begin Collecting Data About People Like Yourself

By Luis León Medina, Líderes Avanzando Fellow

For my older sister and me, as Salvadoran immigrants from a first-generation, low-income background, our college acceptances meant one more step towards the American Dream. However, during our college years, we have experienced diverging pathways.

At my Ivy League school, I found myself with one-on-one academic, social, and career support. Meanwhile, for my sister who attends a predominantly Latinx public institution, acquiring these opportunities has proven to be a bigger challenge. Her academic advisor has more than 50 students and the career counselor to student ratio is more than one to 5,000.

My sister is not an anomaly. She is one of many students facing barriers across U.S. colleges and universities. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Hispanic and Black students graduate college at rates of 45.8% and 38%, respectively. Meanwhile, White and Asian students graduate college at rates of 62% and 63.2%, respectively.

If these racial discrepancies exist, what steps are being taken to address them? And more importantly, who can address them?

The Perfect Opportunity: A New Secretary of Education

Biden nominated Miguel Cardona as Education Secretary. As a child of Puerto Rican descent, Dr. Cardona, who grew up in a New Jersey housing project, is the perfect candidate to begin the fight in addressing racial and ethnic discrepancies in higher education. Throughout his career, he has been an educator to both elementary school children but also college students. He’s more than an educator; he is also an administrator, researcher, and academic. Cardona’s goals and life mission were shaped by growing up as an English learner (EL) in a low-income community.

Throughout his career, Dr. Cardona has led the fight for addressing these racial and ethnic inequities. In fact, his dissertation, Sharpening the Focus of Political Will to Address Achievement Disparities focused on the disparities between ELs and their counterparts. In this study, he explores the barriers these students face such as the inability to participate in extracurriculars and the lack of accessible Spanish/bilingual reading. Though Dr. Cardona has focused on K-12 education, these kinds of factors matter during college. They drastically impact the college experience.

Data Is the Answer

To properly understand these inequities and how they develop, it all begins with better data collection and an evaluation of federal data of institutional-level outcomes. We have some available data, such as graduation rates, enrollment rates, and the type of institutions individuals join. However, we can do better—we can collect data on job placement rates, alumni earnings, housing stability, etc. for the different ethnicities and races.

Students of color often face difficult life situations while enrolled in college—homelessness, food insecurities, housing insecurities, lack of health insurance, among a myriad of other issues. We need publicly accessible data that allows for an intersectional approach to understanding college success.

There is a pressing need for this quality data given the inequities exacerbated by COVID-19. In October of 2020, San Jose Spotlight reported that 51% of Latinx college students were considering not returning to college or shifting to part-time status, while 37% already had stopped taking college classes altogether. Without the necessary data at the federal level, are we simply allowing students to fall behind without providing them the tools they need?

Secretary Miguel Cardona, my sister and I are children of Latinx descent. We were ELs during our early years. The communities we grew up in were defined by poverty. These characteristics have played a major role in our lives, even during our college years. It is time to begin collecting, analyzing, and reporting higher education data based on these intersectional factors that define many college students.

By 2045, about one in every four Americans will be of Latinx descent, so we need to be ready for the next generation of college students. We can no longer allow people like my sister to fall through the cracks. Dr. Cardona has the power to bridge the gaps between Latinx students and their peers and it all begins with data equity.

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Beyond the Veneer of Diversity

By Andrew Mendoza, Líderes Avanzando Fellow

I wasn’t aware that every winter, most dorms at UC Berkeley close. As a result, I was forcibly pushed out from my only means of secure housing. In my early adult years, I was homeless, rummaging around the outskirts of Los Angeles wondering what was next beyond the night and beyond the cold pavement—only lifted out of that abyss by the UnidosUS Affiliate Para Los Niños, a California-based community organization that specializes in assisting marginalized individuals in returning to school and the workforce. I thought that being admitted to one of the top universities in the country would guarantee my safety from the very issues that I have worked so hard to overcome. Instead, here I was: lost in thought, staring at the cold pavement.

Homelessness is still a genuine reality for me to endure as I don’t have a “home” to return to when the dorms close. At Cal, I’m a Regents’ and Chancellor’s Scholar, meaning I entered the University with a full-ride and highest merit-based honors while having a housing guarantee as one of my perks for my scholarship. But in an instant, it didn’t matter that I had my scholarship or its bonuses. It didn’t matter that I had been admitted to an elite institution and considered one of the world’s top students. I was brought back to that moment of vulnerability and fear that I had known in my late teens and that continued to haunt me throughout my life as an adult. Desperate thoughts of dropping out to work full-time and survive were racing through my mind.

People often tout how higher education is the proverbial ‘Golden Ticket’ for a chance out of poverty, a stable path toward generational, socioeconomic mobility. Yet stories like mine are lost in between the showering of “diversity” figures plastered on the front of every university’s websites and social media pages built on the ‘Golden Ticket’ parable. Latinx students across the country are seeing their high school graduation rates increase, and near-proportionally seeing that admissions to college have risen similarly. Despite the increase in college enrollment,  in 2019 Latinos aged 25 years and older were still only half as likely as Whites to have a bachelor’s degree or higher (19% compared to 36%, respectively). Drop-out rates are staggering, so what gives?

Well, it begins with attempts to provide access to an institution, but not inclusion, and then resting on the laurels of diversity. We see this in these large increases in admission rates for every underrepresented minority in higher education. In fact, the largest increases in four-year institution admission rates are most significant in Black and Latinx students. My home university revealed that they had admitted ‘their most diverse class’ in more than 30 years, with the cherry-on-top of a record-breaking admissions rate for Latinx and Black students at 45% and 40% increases, respectively. At face-value, these touted numbers are significant for those of us who wish to see generational and communal changes among marginalized communities.

However, the smile I managed to find was quickly sapped from my face when I remembered the perilous institutional chasms that Latinx and Black students were inevitably going to find. For the last five years, UC Berkeley’s Latinx student population has been advocating for a Latinx student resource center, but it wasn’t until Spring of 2021 that the institution finally decided to take a vote on it—and, of course, denied its construction following its most recent vote. Their dilly-dallying on such a pressing issue cemented their priorities by relegating a student population as a nonpriority. My only thought: “they just admitted their largest Latinx class in 30 years, and they have not yet built the necessary bedrock of resources imperative for Latinx students to succeed.”

I have friends who can’t make ends meet. Those that don’t even have the luxury of my scholarship. I have friends who can’t afford their tuition and living expenses for the highly expensive Bay Area and have to resort to Sugar Dating to get by. The website Seeking Arrangement understands this issue in-depth. College’s financial demands are so excruciatingly high that they created a unique section titled “Sugar Baby University” that advertises itself as a prime way to avoid debt and secure basic necessities (and more). Their current count is three million college students in the United States alone—and that count is rising. A figure, that within the context of this post, merely highlights the prevalence of the issue of basic needs and high costs of college. I have other friends who didn’t win the resource lottery over winter like I did because there isn’t enough funding allocated to the specific purposes of bridging these gaps. They were subsequently forced to “AirBnB” off credit cards for weeks or live out of their car until the dorms opened back up in the spring. Saddest of all, I have friends who were on the same edge I was on, ruminating about dropping out and working full-time instead and leaped.

Especially in a COVID-stricken world where the nectar of funding is the precious ambrosia for universities, it makes sense why diversity figures are going up while dropout rates skyrocket. My prognosis is that institutions, at a broad level, are incentivized to access funding through their diversity recruitment efforts to achieve a Minority-Serving Institution Status. In this case, UC Berkeley is attempting to become a Hispanic-Serving Institution by reaching a 25% Latinx student population threshold, but is not creating the necessary infrastructure to serve the students that would award them this status. Institutions, in this regard, are working backward—reactively and not proactively. They assume that the money should come first before establishing the bedrock to ensure the success of marginalized communities.

I’m tired of this veneer of diversity. I’m tired of universities flaunting their numbers, patting themselves on the back for a seemingly job well done while marginalized students suffer in the underbelly of negligence. As universities edge ever-so-closer to their desired figures of diversity, the question remains: what are they really doing to address the issues that affect the marginalized student body even after they receive their precious nectar? At UC Berkeley, where I was nearly homeless again, there were so many others who had to relive their darkest moments. I relent though. Equity efforts, after all, are a difficult thing to measure and even more difficult to effectively pull off and there are indeed great champions of equity within the institution. Still, any investment must be backed with a proper track record of success, and so far, that challenge has not been fully met. What guarantees that these communities will see the benefits of federal funding when there are institutional gaps left in the wake of this marginalization?

Several of the institutionalized equity-focused entities on campus were the ruminations of a student who saw and experienced these issues first-hand and decided to take matters into their own hands. For instance, the Basic Needs Center, which was the entity that provided housing for me over the winter, began as a student-led initiative. Even I teach a class at Berkeley called NavCal that specifically targets marginalized demographics—undocumented, formerly incarcerated, LGBTQ+, student-parents, and more—to teach them the social capital necessary to quite literally survive the UC Berkeley college experience. While we enjoy serving our communities at the highest levels, I argue that we commit ourselves to the work we do because there is an inherent need, an institutional gap that must always be bridged—and we are putting bandages on the problem, while not diagnosing or treating the root cause of the bleeding wound.

Everyone remembers their college struggles, and unfortunately, many of those still exist today. It varies by demographic, of course, and some demographics are hit harder than others. But aside from the application form for Federal Student Aid (also known as FAFSA), there is no particular way, at a federal level, to discern what really ails our populations besides internally and strategically released figures that are used as fuel for grant writing and alumni donor outreach. I do give ground, though, there exists other, albethey lesser-well-known tools like the College Scorecard that assess institutions, it does not change the fact that the data gathered tends to be similarly superficial. The rest of the more concerning data is often publicly unavailable. Even then, the data released is merely positive data that does not necessarily highlight the real underlying issues of poverty, lack of basic needs, and possible homelessness, to name a few that I have personally experienced.

The FAFSA application only acquires straightforward and rather surface-level data: Pell Grant eligibility, gender identity, and ethnicity among them. I have diagnosed a problem at the university level based on my personal and limited experience but in order to treat the related issues that plague our communities, we must equip ourselves with the proper tools and practice to come to a deeper diagnosis, and hopefully we can ensure that the money derived from diversity is re-allocated into the diverse groups that have elevated the institution’s status.

There is already a “best practice” we can borrow from. As a community-college transfer student who was heavily involved in student government, it was my experience that the institution was often audited by independent bodies on “equity.”  We were scored based on how many ethnic and academic centers and clubs our college had, how many wheelchair accessible buildings, gender-neutral bathrooms, and auxiliary resources like student-parent daycare centers to name a few. Some entities, like the Aspen Institute, leveraged their use of publicly available outcome data to measure excellence for marginalized populations. If and when we scored high enough on the rating, grants would eventually be awarded. There was a proper incentive here: showcase that the institution has taken initiative toward equity and be rewarded—not the other way around.

To offset that disparity, we need the data that illuminates the stories of my friends and I so our stories don’t get lost in the veneer of the diversity. I propose two solutions: (1) federally collect the difficult data, in a similar vein to the way community colleges auditing entities acquire data, and (2)  encourage equity audits to become common practice in order to ensure institutional accountability and data to equalize student outcomes. Once we can do both of these tasks then we will be able to holistically hold institutions accountable more effectively. Maybe then we’ll figure out exactly why students are not completing. Housing issues? Basic needs? Personal life challenges? At the very least, policymakers will be able to target and distribute funds more equitably to those that are facing severe issues regarding their livelihoods and basic needs.

Finally, through this lens of equity, we can start seeing an outcome equalization for college completion. Together, and through our advocacy, we can begin to shift the narrative for student outcomes. Together, we can break the vicious cycles of poverty and create virtuous cycles of prosperity. Together, we can make diversity a durable crown of higher education and not just a fragile veneer.