Hispanics Want to Enroll in College, but They Don’t Know How to Get There

Published By
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Published On
December 7, 2023

Hispanic Americans want to go to college. They’re more likely than their white counterparts to consider it. They’re also more likely to believe that colleges are fulfilling their promises to society.

In a national poll by The Chronicle, 75 percent of Hispanic respondents with no more than a high-school diploma said they had considered college, compared with 60 percent of white respondents. That trend extended across educational levels: Hispanic respondents with some college or less were more than twice as likely as white respondents in that category to say that they would take college courses at some point — 66 percent versus 28 percent.

But some Hispanic survey respondents contacted by The Chronicle were also unsure how to enroll in college and how to pay for it. The findings demonstrate a need for colleges — especially those faced with dwindling enrollments and worried about the impending drop in traditional-age students — to build links to Hispanic communities.

Survey respondents contacted by The Chronicle expressed strong positive feelings about college and a belief in higher education’s promise of socioeconomic advancement. Enrolling in college makes people better educated, more productive, and leads to higher pay, they said.

In open-ended responses, many of those surveyed wrote about professional advancement opportunities as one of the benefits of college.

“Education is very important. In these times people who are better prepared can get better salaries and easier jobs,” wrote one respondent.

Yuririana Onofre, 32, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said obtaining a degree was important — even though she had no plans to. “In this country you need to study,” she said.

Alicia Alvarez Cortez, a 63-year-old respondent living in Downey, Calif., who did not go to college, said that college attendance is necessary “to get one’s kids ahead in life. This life is too expensive,” she said.

Hispanic respondents also saw in higher education a larger societal value. When asked what benefits colleges offered beyond educating individual students, Hispanics were far more likely than their white counterparts — 19 percent versus 5 percent — to say that higher education does an “excellent” job of developing a well-informed citizenry.

Erika Maribel Heredia, 41, a master’s student in the Spanish program at the University of Central Florida, said a college education gives students a broader perspective, showing them how to solve problems or generate ideas on a societal, not just personal, level.

“What college does is it forms a more sophisticated citizenry,” Heredia said.

The Challenge of Paying

Before the pandemic, Hispanic-student enrollment was a success story: The share of degree-seeking undergraduates who were Hispanic had grown from 4.8 percent in 2009 to 20.4 percent in 2019, or 2.8 million students. That enrollment figure dipped during the pandemic by more than 5 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The reasons more Hispanic students are not enrolled in colleges vary, but at least two factors are at play. To begin with, college remains unaffordable.

About 76 percent of Hispanic respondents who had never taken college courses said that affordability was a reason. About 62 percent of white respondents with no college cited the same reason.

Scholarships alone won’t solve that problem. Deborah A. Santiago, chief executive of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit group dedicated to Latina/o- student success, explained that tuition is only part of the problem. “Affordability is not just defined as tuition, fees, and room and board for the Latino community. Affordability factors into the cost of attendance, which is transportation, health care, food, and housing,” she said.

Santiago said she knew students personally who had to choose between paying for gas to attend class or paying for food.

Another barrier for Hispanic families is an information gap: Parents and would-be students may not know how they can afford a college education — what resources, like local and state scholarships, and systems, like federal student loans, are available.

Santiago said that even when potential students know about federal loans, understanding how to finance them and pay them back is an additional barrier.

“I’ve talked to Latino students who say they don’t consider loans financial aid because they have to pay it back. … They’re coming from cash economies, so borrowing and taking out a loan from a bank requires financial literacy and awareness that we haven’t had historically,” Santiago said.

Colleges should also offer explanations for financial-aid packages to both students and families much earlier in the admissions process, and make sure those explanations are in Spanish.

When asked how much it would cost to go to college where she lives, in Brooklyn, Onofre said, “The truth is I don’t know.”

Alvarez-Cortez said she estimated that colleges near Downey, in the Los Angeles area, were “expensive” and that a student might borrow money, but she did not know how to apply for a student loan, or anything more than that such loans existed.

Wil del Pilar, senior vice president of the Education Trust, an advocacy group for equity in education, echoed Santiago’s point that Hispanics tend to be debt averse. And Hispanic families, like Black ones, have less wealth than white families, del Pilar said.

A 2019 U.S. Treasury Department report highlighted a study from researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis that found that the median wealth of white families was $184,000. The median wealth for Hispanic families was $38,000, and the median for Black families was $23,000.

That wealth gap, combined with an aversion to debt, explains why some Hispanic students start their higher education at a community college with the goal of transferring to a four-year institution, del Pilar said.

For some, a two-year degree or career program is all they need. When asked if there were ways to achieve a successful livelihood besides earning a college degree, 47 percent of Hispanic respondents said trade school was a better option than college, compared with 37 percent of respondents overall.

Terri Gomez, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, said that Hispanic families are finding educational alternatives to four-year degrees in community-college programs that lead students directly to high-paying jobs.

“If we’re not in there communicating the benefits of a four-year degree and how that makes a difference in wages and careers, then we’re missing an opportunity,” Gomez said.

The opportunity is ripe: The Chronicle’s survey indicates that the problem is not that Hispanics don’t see the value of college, but that they don’t see it as an option for themselves. Fourteen percent of Hispanic respondents said that colleges were doing an “excellent” job at “leveling the playing field for success in society.” That’s compared with just 5 percent of their white counterparts.

In open-ended responses, Hispanic people wrote that higher education was one of the only ways to gain access to a more financially secure life.

“To have a degree means that wherever you are you can find a job,” one respondent wrote.

Cortez echoed this sentiment.

“When you don’t study, you don’t get ahead.”

Whether more Hispanic students will eventually enroll in colleges may now depend on how hard institutions work to get them there.

Latinos in Higher Education - 2024 Compilation of Fast Facts - web pop-up banner with "Learn More" button.