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Hispanic College Enrollment: Years of Progress Stunted by the Pandemic

Image depicts graduating students listening to a commencement address in New York in 2016.
Image depicts graduating students listening to a commencement address in New York in 2016. Image depicts graduating students listening to a commencement address in New York in 2016.

In the midst of Hispanic Heritage month, a celebration of history and culture, hundreds of Hispanic students are facing the tough choice of whether or not to attend college. For many years, this month has been an opportunity for Hispanics to honor their accomplishments, which, among other successes, included a steady increase in the number of Hispanics going to college. However, this year’s celebration was disturbed by recent data showing a decline in Hispanic college enrollment and attendance. While the Covid-19 pandemic has hurt college students of all backgrounds, the impact on Hispanic students has been particularly dire. Without the intervention of local and national institutions, the number of Latinos in college will continue to decline. 

Before the pandemic, Hispanics were seeking higher education in record numbers. Hispanics were the only student population growing on college campuses before the pandemic. In 2000, 1.7 million Hispanic students were enrolled in four-year universities. Two decades later, that number nearly doubled to 3.5 million. A substantial portion of that increase occurred from 2009 to 2019. In ten years, Hispanic students saw an increase of 2.4 to 3.5 million students enrolling in college–the largest jump for any race or ethnicity. 

According to Andrea Flores, an education professor at Brown University and author of The Succeeders: How Immigrant Youth Are Transforming What It Means to Belong in America, Hispanic students, especially women, have increasingly sought out higher education to assist their families. Education is known to be an avenue for economic mobility. Hence, Hispanic students have enrolled more in college from a desire to raise themselves and their families. Professor Flores notes that Hispanics students view education as a “clear pathway” to advancement. The data from the past twenty years suggested that Hispanic students would continue on an increasing trajectory. 

However, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of Hispanic students enrolled in college has declined. While overall college enrollment dropped by 5.9% in winter 2020 and spring 2021, the Hispanic student enrollment declined by 7.3%. The number of Hispanic students in community college increased by 1.7% in 2020, but it decreased by 13.7% in 2021. The fall in Hispanic student college enrollment is especially alarming, after nearly two decades of progress.  

The Covid-19 pandemic impacted the Hispanic population by exacerbating existing problems and creating new challenges. Professor Flores points out that Hispanics are predominantly low-income, so the pandemic heightened the community’s financial struggles. To help alleviate financial pressures, plenty of Hispanic students sought employment to support their families. Entering the workforce often meant temporarily or permanently exiting the education system. At the same time, other students, specifically older siblings, were tasked with taking greater care of their younger siblings and household. The study “Parents Are Struggling to Provide for Their Families during the Pandemic” from the Urban Institute, found that 33.3% of Hispanic families reported that someone in the family stayed home because of caregiving responsibilities. To further demonstrate the strain the pandemic had on Hispanic families, oftentimes if a household faced food insecurity, parents and older siblings alike would skip meals to support the younger children in the house. 

Professor Flores highlights that students from migrant families were particularly affected by the pandemic because of their inability to access critical resources such as educational assistance and child care. In addition to learning how to navigate the American school system, older students became responsible for helping their siblings learn online and providing financial support. According to a study conducted by the Urban Institute, 68.8 percent of Hispanics with noncitizen family members reported that they or a family member experienced a work-related financial loss because of the pandemic. In contrast, 49.1 percent of Hispanic families with all citizen family members said that a family member experienced a financial loss related to work. The study also noted that Hispanic families with noncitizen family members were particularly impacted by the pandemic because of their inability to access government resources such as Medicaid or food stamps. Additionally, legislation like the CARES Act specifically excluded noncitizens from receiving relief. The burden of the pandemic fell heavily on Hispanic families with noncitizen family members, increasing the challenges they already faced. 

Local government institutions and agencies should reach out to their Hispanic populations and inquire about what they can do to help the community. Local governments can spread awareness of assistance programs through flyers, pamphlets, and community meetings or set up stable and reliable WiFi connection in low-income neighborhoods. The access to information and resources that local government officials have could make a significant difference in education if used wisely. Schools should reach out to Hispanic students to check in about their educational experience. Schools are a powerful resource and should be used to help undo the pandemic’s damage. When asked about what can be done on a local level, Professor Flores stressed the importance of community based organizations and support from school staff and professionals. 

On a local level, more schools can implement policies similar to the University of Texas  Rio Grande Valley, which actually saw an increase in Hispanic enrollment during the pandemic. Through various financial initiatives, such as expanding the threshold for students to qualify for financial assistance programs, many Hispanic students were able to continue their education. The university changed the income eligibility threshold for their Tuition Advantage program which covers tuition and mandatory fees from $75,000 to $95,000. This increase is a significant reason for the university’s increase in Hispanic enrollment. Local and community colleges should take a similar approach as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and implement policies that address the needs of their Hispanic population. 

Nationally, colleges can provide Hispanic students with useful information about opportunities and resources. Letting students know about work availability and educational assistance could prove to be transformative for students whose finances and education were impacted by the pandemic. The Hispanic community saw tremendous growth in college enrollment in the past twenty years, and local government and educational institutions should band together to make sure this progress is not lost. 

Image via AP/Bebeto Matthews