Latino/a College Student Enrollment Declines Amid Pandemic

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Updated on November 18, 2021
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Reviewed by Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

  • Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. college students are Latino/a, following decades of enrollment growth.
  • But since the pandemic, fewer Latino/a students 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 strides toward closing the college enrollment gap. The percentage of Hispanic students going on to higher education rose from about 4% in 1976 to nearly 20% of all U.S. students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in 2017. ("Hispanic" refers to anyone from a Spanish-speaking background, while "Latino/a" refers to anyone from a Latin American background.)

But with the obstacles posed by the ongoing pandemic, the college enrollment gap threatens to widen once more for Latino/a students, whose communities face disproportionate risks from COVID-19 and greater income loss due to nationwide shutdowns.

Enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse reveals a 5.3% dip in the number of Latino/a undergraduates in spring 2021 compared to this same time last year. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the total number of first-year Latino/a students dropped 20% in fall 2020.

Enrollment data reveals a 5.3% dip in the number of Latino/a undergraduates in spring 2021 compared to this same time last year.

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Latino/a students — once the fastest-growing group of undergraduates in the U.S. — are no longer going to college at the same rates due to the pandemic. 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, indicating that fewer plan to pursue higher education.

While the reluctance to take on debt during COVID-19 has caused a decline in all college-bound students, Latino/a families have experienced the economic crisis particularly heavily. Now, these families are sending fewer students to college, a trend that will likely continue into next year.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which millions of students fill out each year for college aid, reports about 7% fewer high school applicants compared to last year. Among schools with a Black and Latino/a student enrollment of 75% or higher, 18% fewer students have submitted the FAFSA. In total, FAFSA applications from high school students are down 10%.

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, students' scores are plummeting, particularly in math.

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.

The recent reversal of Latino/a college enrollment gains signals that the pandemic is widening 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 COVID-19's economic fallout, Black and brown students especially are being forced to rethink their college plans. Latino/a students are now 200% and 130% more likely to delay or cancel plans for college than their white and Black counterparts, respectively.

Community Colleges Witness Drop in Hispanic Students

Studies show that Hispanics value education highly and are more likely than Black or white individuals to consider college a gateway to the middle class. But while Hispanic students and their parents often believe college will eventually pay off, they're less likely than other racial and ethnic groups to take out loans for educational purposes.

Most Hispanic students who pursue higher education attend community colleges.

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Unwilling to take on student debt to foot college's rising costs, most Hispanic 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 Hispanic and Black students.

In fall 2020, highly diverse community colleges experienced the sharpest drops in enrollment. While overall undergraduate college enrollment declined just 2.5%, community college enrollment fell over 10%.

One major point in education reform is how to better support students navigating the transfer from community college to a four-year institution. Historically, many Hispanic students enroll at community colleges, while fewer directly enroll at or transfer to a four-year school. Now, however, fewer of these students are embarking on either 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 describing schools that receive grants to develop and implement programs and facilities that serve 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 and grant funding.

As institutions that educate and support underserved populations, these colleges received extra funding in the past year's federal pandemic relief packages. But whereas private colleges with large endowments have been able to weather the loss of campus revenue and offer tuition discounts to entice prospective students, other schools, including many HSIs, are experiencing a dire budget crunch.

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Portrait of Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

Laila Abdalla obtained her Ph.D. in English from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. For over 21 years at Central Washington University, she taught undergraduate and graduate courses in English and writing. Abdalla has devoted her teaching and leadership to matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Committed to her students' experiences, she raises awareness of BIPOC issues in language, community, and culture. Abdalla also leads with equity in management and nonprofit volunteering and continues to develop her own understanding of these complex issues in her lived experiences.

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