“It Made the Sacrifices Worth It”: A Look at UnidosUS and the Center for Community Capital’s New Student Debt Report

More Latinos are going to college than ever before but mounting college costs and a lower average family net worth mean that many of them are mortgaging their futures to get there.

Unfortunately, while student debt among Latino millennials is rising, their graduation rates still trail those of Whites, according to a new report by researchers from UnidosUS and the Center for Community Capital at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Data from the Department of Education show that in 2016, the completion rate for Latinos in four-year colleges was 54%, versus 63% for their White peers; at two-year institutions, where most Latino students (45%) are enrolled, only 19% of them leave with degree in hand.




But the numbers are only part of the story, the researchers explained at a panel discussion last week with experts from Ed Trust, the United Negro College Fund, and Young Invincibles.

Based on in-depth interviews with thirty Latino college graduates from different backgrounds and six U.S. cities, the joint report—“It Made the Sacrifices Worth It”: The Latino Experience in Higher Education—uses personal stories to highlight the hurdles that many Latinos face when applying to college, pursuing a degree, and trying to reap the economic fruits of their educational labor.

The good news, said Samantha Vargas Poppe, associate director for policy and advocacy at UnidosUS and one of the authors of the report, is Latinos know that their ticket to a good-paying job and a middle-class life is a college degree, and they’re betting the investment will pay off. Research by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) suggests it’s a smart bet: Of the 11.6 million U.S. jobs added since the Great Recession, 99% went to workers with a college education, the CEW’s findings show.

The bad news is that students still have their work cut out for them, particularly if they’re the first generation in their family to go to college.


Student debt report

Going to college is daunting enough as it is. But students who are the first in their families to attend—as were most of the study’s participants—must learn the ins and outs of applying to school, filing for financial aid, loans and scholarships, doing taxes, registering for classes, and adjusting to college life largely on their own.

The report also noted that borrowing may not fully cover students’ expenses once they get admitted, either. DACA recipients, for example, aren’t eligible for federal student aid and must find other ways to pay for college. Many of the report’s participants lived at home, worked in multiple jobs and cared for younger relatives, all while going to class, studying for tests, writing essays, and keeping up with other responsibilities. Because Latinos also tend to be cost-conscious, averse to borrowing, and family-oriented, many choose community colleges over four-year schools to save money and/or stay close to home.

While that sounds like a prudent strategy, it can make things harder on them, since two-year colleges are liable to be underfunded and overcrowded and students are less likely to finish a degree when they go part-time, the report notes. Latinos are also more likely to be targeted by predatory for-profit colleges, which charge high tuition but often fail to equip people with the skills needed to succeed on the job market. According to a study by Demos, 31% of Latino student borrowers leave college with debt and no degree.

That negates many of the benefits of going in the first place, the researchers said. Without a degree, young Latinos may lack the credentials required to land the type of job that would enable them pay off their debt. It also limits their ability to get on with their lives and buy a home, start a family, and save for a rainy day and retirement, according to the report’s authors. And that’s a problem.

As the largest and fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, Latinos’ economic triumph or failure isn’t theirs alone—it’s America’s. Policymakers would be wise to prioritize Latinos’ educational success, the report’s authors suggest. By 2020, roughly one in five U.S. college students will be Latino, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; by 2050, they will comprise nearly a third of the country’s labor force, the Pew Research Center estimates. Unless we want U.S. businesses to face huge skilled-labor shortages, we can’t afford to leave Latinos behind.

Even the graduates who felt college was worth it or thought they were better off than their parents and peers without degrees, said it was tough to keep their heads above water, much less save money. One graduate told the authors that she doesn’t think she’ll ever be financially secure enough to buy a home. Meanwhile, labor statistics show that Latinos with bachelor’s degrees still earn less on average than their counterparts, the authors noted.





Unfortunately, what the stories in this report reveal is the extent to which Latinos’ disadvantages vary yet are deeply embedded in American society. There are no quick and easy solutions, and things are likely to get worse before they get better, since the Trump administration and its GOP allies would rather give a $1.5 trillion tax cut to billionaires than invest in the country’s workforce and make college more affordable, a paper from the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College recently observed. Worse still, Trump wants to roll back the expansion of the income-driven repayment program for federal student loans, which former President Obama put in place to make loan payments more affordable, a recent New York Times op-ed pointed out.

In the meantime, though, efforts to reduce the complexity of FAFSA, promote financial literacy on campus, and increase grant and work-study opportunities are steps in the right direction, the authors and panelists agreed. They also couldn’t overstate the importance of college readiness programs like TRIO and GEAR UP, and of educating more people about the full costs of going to college – which, in addition to tuition, also include housing, food, and books: Allie Aguilera, a policy and government affairs manager at Young Invincibles who sat on the panel, pointed out that while “Pell Grants just got a $175 boost” in the new federal budget, few people realize “that’s like half the cost of an organic chemistry book.”

The truth is, until we really commit to addressing the structural inequities that make getting a degree disproportionately harder for Latinos and people of color, college may foster inequality rather than fix it.

To learn more about UnidosUS’s work to make education more equitable for Latinos, visit our website.

By Gabriela Montell, UnidosUS Communications Manager