VIDEO: Latino Students Speak About Their Higher Education Experience

Education is one of the most important issues for Latino families. Seven out of 10 Latinx students in higher education are the first in their families to go to college, compared to 48 percent of their White counterparts, UnidosUS notes in a new report, Following Their Dreams in an Inequitable System: Latino Students Share Their College Experience. That makes attending college tremendously important for Latinx students and their families, yet “many Latino students enter college without the economic or the social resources that other students receive,” said Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) during a webinar on Latino students in higher education hosted last month by UnidosUS.

Shalala noted that Latinos face a host of obstacles. They are underrepresented at top tier and ivy league universities, overrepresented at predatory for-profit colleges, “and the achievement gap with White and Asian students are very troubling trends that we have to address head on,” Shalala said, promising to push legislation to give these students more support, particularly during a coronavirus pandemic that has caused disproportionately high infections and deaths among Latinos and other minorities.

“I consider it our duty to ensure that the next generation of Latino leaders have the necessary tools needed to succeed,” said Shalala, who represents a district with the top two institutions in the United States enrolling and graduating Latino students with bachelor’s degrees. “Keep the pressure on Congress, even on me, and know that you have an ally and a partner in me.”

The webinar’s participants reinforced the message shared by Shalala and UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization. Each of the panelists illustrated central themes outlined in the UnidosUS report by sharing their own experiences as students and later as student advocates.

UnidosUS policy analyst Amanda Martinez, who hosted the event, outlined the report’s main themes:

  • First-generation status shapes the college experience for many Latino students.
  • Persistent financial insecurity affects Latino students’ decisions at every step of higher education.
  • Overall, Latinos are driven to complete their studies, and degree programs.
  • Latino students thrive when targeted institutional supports are available.

Kony Serrano, senior youth development worker at the UnidosUS Affiliate Mary’s Center in Washington, DC, used her own college experience to illustrate how financial insecurity affects many Latinx students all through their college careers. She moved with her mother from El Salvador when she was nine years old, and grew up in a single-parent household, so money was always tight. One year she had to leave school for a semester after she got to campus and found out that she had lost $8,000 in financial aid because her mother had received a $5,000-a-year raise at her job.

“We work really hard to get to college, and I think we have made a lot of strides as a society to make sure that we have the proper resources for Latinx students to have access to higher education,” Serrano said, “but we currently don’t have what is necessary to keep students in college.”

Karla MacIntyre, a college success coach at the UnidosUS Affiliate Conexión Américasin Nashville, Tennessee, said paying for college was also a constant struggle for her. She had to put herself through school because her family was not in a position to help financially. She transferred from a community college where she studied part-time to a four-year university, thinking she had lined up enough outside scholarship money to complement her full-tuition scholarship from the school. But the outside money triggered a reduction in her scholarship from the institution, leaving her with a $1,500 bill for campus fees. An administrator casually suggested she ask her mom to send a check, saying, “You know, $1500 is not that much.”

“At predominantly White institutions that’s kind of the expectation. Parents are paying for your child to go there,” MacIntyre said. The encounter left her feeling that the institution was not set up to be sensitive to someone in her situation. “I was just so disappointed in the system,” she said. MacIntyre went on to work as a recruiter at the university, making it her mission to ensure that incoming students understand the often confusing rules and language they need to follow their financial aid packages.

Balancing work and studies can be even more difficult and complicated for students who are undocumented, said Gustavo Manjarrez, an academic adviser at the University of Minnesota who was born in Mexico and is a DACA recipient.

“Even now in graduate school there’s certain grants for only U.S. citizens and residents,” he said, “and I can’t apply for those so I need to work and pay from out of pocket again. It’s been a struggle, especially now with COVID.” Tips at the restaurant where he works have become thinner, and he has to help a younger sister with distance learning and the digital divide that has inhibited learning for low-income students in elementary, middle, and high schools.

To address these and other obstacles, the UnidosUS report concludes with a host of recommendations for federal policy makers. These include:

  • Improving national postsecondary data to ensure that an equitable picture is captured within the higher education system.
  • Making access to high-quality colleges/universities more affordable for high-need students.
  • Strengthening relevant and customized support for Latinos and other first-generation students.
  • Providing clear and easily accessible information to help economically disadvantaged students and parents obtain and understand financial aid.
  • Investing in institutions that provide targeted support for Latino students.

“We’re, as we said, 70% first generation, so we do want to see support services that are a little bit more targeted and customized to our different financial backgrounds and our first-generation status,” Martinez said.

Among the concrete actions UnidosUS recommends in the report are passing a coronavirus relief package that addresses the above federal policy recommendations, and encouraging constituents, especially in areas with high Latino populations, to vote.



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