Understanding the College Completion Gap for Latino Students

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Latino/a students face unique obstacles to higher education. In a recent report by UnidosUS and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers surveyed Latino/a students who entered college, trade school, and certificate programs, but never graduated. The resulting data shows just how immense the completion gap is for Latino/a students.

Compared to their non-Latino peers, Latino/a learners are more likely to face significant obstacles to higher education, like trouble financing college, transportation inaccessibility, and other socioeconomic stressors. To eliminate the college completion gap for Latino/a students, colleges and universities must understand these problems and address them accordingly.

Major Issues Latino/a Students Face


According to a 2019 report by nonprofit Salud America!, Latino/as rely on public transportation more heavily than other demographics, but they also face barriers to access. When planning for college, many Latino/a learners have to restrict their choices based on their ability to find consistent transportation.

Cost of College

Claudia Ochoa, a first-generation college graduate and AmeriCorps alumna who focuses on higher education, notes that out-of-pocket tuition costs — even after federal student aid — significantly affect low-income students. "This is an issue because they will almost always encounter a gap for direct school expenses."

Ochoa also points out that undocumented students do not receive any federal aid and are sometimes also ineligible for state aid. The combination of these issues means that many Latino/a students cannot afford to attend a university.

College Assistance

Dr. Angel Gonzalez, a higher education administrator, expresses that many students also experience the complex phenomenon known as the "hidden curriculum." This "refers to unstated or implicit expectations, procedures, rules, and norms that dictate behavior in an educational environment."

It may be especially tricky for first-generation college students to navigate these hidden rules and expectations given that they don't have a family member to ask for help who has attended college. To succeed in academia, students must find assistance navigating these implicit barriers or struggle to succeed.

Family and Work Responsibilities

Latino/a students are sometimes restricted by their need to support themselves and their families. Students may have financial obligations to their household, which can prevent them from pursuing higher education. According to the UnidosUS study, Latino/as are the one of the demographics most likely to experience socioeconomic strain and that can put a tremendous financial burden on potential students.

How These Issues Impact College Completion

Rise in Student Debt

Latino/a students are one of the demographics that relies on student loans the most. Lower household incomes mean that students are less able to pay for residual tuition balances and the out-of-pocket costs of college. According to EducationData.org, 67% of Latino student borrowers have student loan debt.

The UnidosUS study also suggests that these students have greater debt aversion than their peers. As they continue school, their growing student debt balance is a deterrent to continuing their education.

College Options

When trying to complete their degree, students also have to deal with obstacles that aren't made apparent to them at the beginning of their educational journey — part of the "hidden curriculum" of college.

For instance, after taking advantage of the affordability of community colleges, sometimes students can't transfer to their preferred four-year college because of hidden requirements. The process of transferring can be so frustrating that some students don't complete the transfer process.

Latino/a students' college attendance options are also limited by location, transportation access, costs, and familial obligations.

Balancing Competing Demands

The rigor in college coursework can come as a shock to some students. Many Latino/as are first-generation college students, which often means that they have no point of reference for the realities of college-level coursework.

Also, culture plays a substantial role in students' ability to balance coursework and daily life once in college. It is common for young Latino/a adults to continue living at home and contribute to the household. Some Latino/a learners may find it difficult to uphold familial responsibilities and coursework.

Solutions and Resources for Latino/a College Students

The stress of all of these environmental impacts can leave students feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and lonely. "Being the first to have [these] experiences and new needs can lead to many social [and] emotional issues," Ochoa says. The combination of financial, social, and academic burdens further the completion gap that Latino/a students face.

However, there are ways to mitigate these obstacles to higher education. The U.S. Department of Education has a collection of programs, known as TRIO, dedicated to helping marginalized students gain access to and complete college. However, students must be eligible for the Pell Grant to qualify for TRIO grant aid, which means that undocumented students and DACA students aren't eligible.

However, there are some scholarships available for undocumented students. And organizations like the Latino American Association and the Latino Student Fund also offer financial resources and other forms of support.

Solutions that address the issues mentioned above, like university-sponsored transportation and streamlined financial aid processes for students with complicated documentation, are vital to filling the completion gap for Latino/a students.

Implementing completion initiatives at colleges and universities with large Latino/a populations will also improve student success. First-generation Latino/a college students who successfully complete their higher education can encourage younger learners and eradicate barriers.

Additionally, schools should increase Latino/a enrollment efforts and recruitment to encourage higher and faster graduation rates.

Programs like Howard Community College's Ambiciones, the University of Texas at San Antonio's ACE Scholar Program, and SUNY at Albany's Educational Opportunity Program are making strides. Latino/a participants in these programs had higher transfer rates to four-year institutions and higher graduation rates. They also earned their degrees more quickly.

The positive outcomes for students in these programs suggest that the key to student success is to provide culturally competent and accessible guidance for Latino/a students.

To bridge the completion gap between Latino/a students and their peers, schools must implement solutions to support them. Institutions should survey and study their Latino/a student populations to create more effective paths for success. Understanding the necessity of targeted interventions can greatly improve Latino/a student success initiatives and jumpstart those that have yet to be established.

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