COVID-19 is hurting Latino/a students' education gains. After decades of growth, fewer Latinos/as went to college this year, and fewer plan on going next year.

Latino/a College Student Enrollment Declines Amid Pandemic

  • Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. college students is Latino/a, following decades of enrollment growth.
  • But since the pandemic, fewer Latinos/as have enrolled in college and applied for aid.
  • School disruptions, health risks, and income loss widen historical racial gaps in education.

Latino/a students have made massive strides toward closing the college enrollment gap. By 2017, the percentage of Latino/a students had risen to nearly 20% of all U.S. students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions.

But the college enrollment gap now threatens to widen once more for Latino/a students, whose families face disproportionate risks of contracting COVID-19 and losing income due to nationwide shutdowns.

Fall 2020 enrollment data shows a 5.4% dip in the number of Latino/a undergraduates compared to the previous year.

Fall 2020 enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows a 5.4% dip in the number of Latino/a undergraduates compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, the number of first-year Latino/a students dropped a whopping 20%.

Latino/a students — the fastest-growing group of undergraduates in the U.S. — are falling back due to the pandemic. And next year portends more of the same: A Washington Post analysis of federal education data found a large decrease in the number of Latino/a students applying for financial aid.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which millions of students fill out each year for college aid, has welcomed about 9% fewer high school applicants compared to this time last year. Among high schoolers from schools with a Latino/a student enrollment of 75% or higher, 18% fewer have submitted the FAFSA.

Latino/a Students Face Steep Education Hurdles

This year, many college students are logging worse grades. Teachers at the K-12 and college levels have been directed to grade "compassionately," a leniency curve set by the turmoil of the times. Nevertheless, math scores remain low.

Without the equalizing benefits of in-person learning, such as academic support, counseling, and technology access, vulnerable student groups, including Latino/a students, are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 learning loss, whose consequences reverberate.

The recent reversal of Latino/a college enrollment gains signals that the pandemic is reopening education gaps along stark racial and economic lines. Seventy-one percent of Latino/a undergraduates and 75% of Black undergraduates come from families in the bottom half of earners.

As lower-income Americans continue to contend with the economic fallout of COVID-19, Black and brown students are becoming more likely to rethink their college plans.

Community Colleges Witness Drop in Latino/a Students

Studies show that Latinos/as strongly value education and are more likely than Black or white individuals to consider college a gateway to the middle class. But while Latino/a students and their parents often believe college will pay off, they're less likely than other racial groups to take out loans for college.

Most Latino/a students who pursue higher education attend community colleges.

Unwilling to take on student debt to foot college's rising costs, most Latino/a students who pursue higher education attend community colleges. Offering both career training and a more affordable bridge to a bachelor's degree, community colleges enroll the greatest proportion of Latino/a and Black students.

Last fall, highly diverse community colleges experienced the sharpest drops in enrollment. While overall college enrollment declined just 2.5%, community college enrollment fell over 10%.

Choosing community colleges over four-year colleges is one reason that graduation rates have lagged among Latino/a students, even as more go to college. A major point in education reform is how to better support students navigating the transfer from community college to a four-year institution. Now, however, fewer Latino/a students are embarking on that path.

Pandemic Hits Hispanic-Serving Institutions Hard

Many of the colleges hit hardest by COVID-19-related closures serve Latino/a students. The U.S. contains over 500 Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), a designation chosen by activists to describe the similarities among schools with large Latino/a student populations.

Most HSIs are public colleges — including both flagship universities and small regional schools — that charge lower tuition and rely heavily on public funding. As minority-serving institutions, these colleges received extra funding in the past year's federal pandemic relief packages.

But whereas well-endowed private colleges have been able to weather the loss of campus revenue and offer tuition discounts to entice prospective students, many HSIs are experiencing a dire budget crunch.

Education policy experts say that even before the pandemic-driven economic downswing, HSIs dealt with insufficient funding. In 2019, the total funding available for HSIs equaled $87 per Latino/a student enrolled, versus $1,642 per Black student enrolled at a historically Black college or university.

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