Unemployment Hardships Could Derail the Very Students Who Were Poised to Drive Colleges’ Enrollment

Published By
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Published On
May 21, 2020

Hispanic students are higher ed’s growth engine. Unemployment and underemployment could keep them from enrolling.

A year ago, Latino unemployment was at an all-time low. But with Covid-19 it has ballooned. Hispanics in the United States have been hard-hit economically by the pandemic, with about 20 percent having been laid off or furloughed, data continue to show. That joblessness comes on top of the tragedy that Covid-19 illnesses and deaths have occurred at disproportionately higher rates among Latinos, African Americans, and members of the Navajo Nation than in the U.S. population as a whole.

Colleges will feel the impact of that immediately — and in years to come.

Latinos “have been driving the enrollment growth and the completion growth in the country,” says Deborah Santiago, the co-founder and chief executive of Excelencia in Education.

But now, as Santiago told me, many of those students could find themselves unable to start or continue their college education. That could be because their parents have lost jobs, or they themselves have, since more than 60 percent of Hispanic students typically work while enrolled. The population tends to work disproportionately in restaurants, hotels, and other service and hospitality sectors that have been shuttered because of the pandemic.

Latino students are also more likely to live in multigenerational homes, and even if they haven’t lost their jobs, they might hesitate to go to work to pay for college, for fear of infecting their families, Santiago noted, “especially their grandparents.”

The even crueler side of this, she said, is that the expected slowdown in college enrollment comes “at a time when Latinos are more and more ready to go.” On top of that, along with Asian Americans, they are the most likely to say that, if they lose their job because of Covid-19, they would need additional training or education to find another with the same wages, according to a recent Strada Consumer Insights Center poll.

Santiago believes Latinos still will enroll in the fall, but “it will not be the numbers that it could be.”

We chatted last week so she could put what she calls the “Latino lens” on the pandemic. She also was one of the last people I interviewed Before Covid, for a newsletter I was going to write about ways to make campuses more welcoming. Some of her advice then still applies now, such as teaching professors how to pronounce common Latino names (it’s Hey-zoos, not Jeez-us), and improving outreach to family members.

A few other considerations are especially relevant now: paying attention to food, housing, and other basic needs; ensuring that all students have adequate technology and Wi-Fi access off campus; and beefing up advising and other supports to help them manage the added stresses.

That will be a lot easier said than done. Two out of three Latino students attend one of the nation’s 539 Hispanic-serving institutions, known as HSIs (those where at least a quarter of the full-time-equivalent undergraduate enrollment is Hispanic). All but 15 percent of those colleges are public, and while they might not be facing the same existential threat as many small private colleges, including several historically black institutions, they are likely to see significant state budget cuts.

Many HSIs also didn’t fare that well with the federal Cares Act either, because as my colleague Eric Kelderman reported, the law’s funding formula gave short shrift to part-time students. Yes, Latino students are disproportionately part-time students as well.

Despite all of that, Santiago is determined to avoid pessimism. “We have more experience doing a lot with less,” she said of HSIs. She’s already heard from institutions looking to adapt the curriculum to changing circumstances, including Florida International University, which is adding Covid-19 safety training to its hospitality courses.

While she does worry that some institutions will see the tough times ahead as a reason to spend less time (and money) in trying to better serve Latino students, she argues that such an approach would be shortsighted, especially considering national demographic trends. “Serving Hispanics,” she said, “is going to be the solution going forward.”