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In an interview with Janette Martinez, a senior policy and research analyst at Excelencia in Education, I discussed the importance of Hispanic voices in policy dialogues about affordability and student borrowing. Read more on Lumina’s “Borrowers of Color” project.

1. What do affordability and debt issues look like for Latino students, and how are these connected to the story of these students in higher education?

When it comes to higher education, Latino students adjust their attendance patterns to afford their education and fit into a system that’s not built for them. That may look like going part time, working over 30 hours a week, or attending a two-year institution. While Latino students are applying for financial aid at the same rate as their peers, they’re less likely to receive it. Because of their attendance patterns, many Latino students don’t qualify for the full Pell grant amounts or receive the same financial aid. At the same time, significantly higher numbers of Latino students are entering higher education as our share of the overall population rises, but we don’t see that reflected in degree-attainment rates. There’s still a lot to be done, but the narrative doesn’t value or acknowledge the resilience of Latino students. For example, Latinos are more likely to still be attending and pursuing degrees six to eight years after they’ve begun than other racial or ethnic groups. That can look like failure as a data point, but we think that’s a story of resilience and persistence in creating their pathways. Affordability is a big issue, and it’s slowing down their pursuit of education.

2. What are some of the deeper racial and systemic relationships behind that story?

On structural barriers and misperceptions

Latinos are more likely to be first-generation students and come from families making less than $25,000, which is a partial byproduct of racial and socioeconomic inequality. Consequently, information around paying (and repaying) for college can be limited—and knowing you’re already in a financially unstable predicament often drives discomfort with taking out loans. More often, we hear the stories of students who took out loans and didn’t complete, and that can create an aversion to borrowing in our community. We don’t hear the good stories as often—that they took out a loan at a certain amount and it helped them finish faster and work less.

We also have to think about graduation to what end. Latino students are twice as likely as their white peers to default on loans, even with a bachelor’s degree. We know that even with a degree, Latinos are more likely to be in an entry-level job and have a harder time moving up. How are we thinking about the structural racism that leads to that when we consider workforce outcomes and degree payoffs? Even though we see dramatically lower default rates among those with degrees versus those without them, you still look at the data and think, “What’s happening?”

Latinos value higher education. We make up a fifth of enrolled students, but all of these factors play a role in terms of outcomes. Too often the profile of Latinos is very deficit-based, and it assumes our lower levels of educational attainment compared with others reflects that we do not value higher education. This is false, and we have had to refute this time and again.

3. What framing do you think is necessary to move us toward a more productive narrative and policy conversation about Latino borrowers?

On the power of asset-based narratives and targeted policymaking

Taking an asset-based approach rather than a deficit-based approach is critical. We need a narrative that understands the perseverance of Latino students, rather than the narrow and commonly heard stories about debt aversion and non-completion. There was a report from Urban Institute that said that 77 percent of Latino students who had started at community colleges right after high school completed associate degrees with no debt. Even if it took them longer, that’s perseverance. That’s persistence. It’s not that Latinos are just not finishing college—they’re taking a little bit longer, and money is a barrier.

Knowing that, how do we help Latinos complete faster and not think it’s a lost cause to borrow in order to do so? Debt seems scary if we don’t think we can pay it back. However, if we can provide data on borrowing to show that it can be an investment tool rather than a last resort, and we can also provide wraparound supports and pathways to graduation, gainful earnings, and repayment at the same time, this could help unlock new borrowing-and-completion patterns—and new narratives. That’s especially true in this moment as the economy takes a hit and less public aid is available. We may start to see a significant increase in borrowing as we saw during the recession that began in 2008—if not more—as other grant and institutional aid options decline.

4. What would policies look like if they were more attentive to the unique needs of Latino borrowers, especially in the wake of this economic downturn and an uncertain outlook for higher education?

At the federal level

We’re going to need all hands on deck to help students feel comfortable and feel like they have a clear path forward. In a perfect world, we’d have more public funding and financial aid. On the front end, how can we better advise students about “good debt,” worthwhile investments, and repayment options—such as income-based repayment—while also taking into account the real structural barriers facing Latino communities, barriers that already are showing up in more pronounced ways amid the pandemic? This also begs the need for better and more publicly accessible data on loans and grant aid, broken out by race and ethnicity. The lack of such data hinder our ability to make targeted and informed policy decisions.

On the back end, we need repayment and loan-forgiveness options and policies that make the path to forgiveness clear at each step. Programs such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness and TEACH Grants have had a lot of issues, and these make students, especially Latino students, less likely to want to rely on these paths to loan forgiveness. We also need better workforce outcome protections built into repayment policies, especially now that millions of people have abruptly found themselves unemployed. How do we make sure they’re able to make progress on paying back their loans without penalties?

In states and on campuses

We also need to think about how colleges and universities are serving Latino students, especially given the resource limitations at campuses where these students are overwhelmingly represented. Likewise, we need to make sure Latino students aren’t being disproportionately left out of state aid programs that can help them afford an education. Looming state funding cuts may pose challenges, but new federal resources, including Title V funding, could help increase supports for Latino students.

5. How do Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) fit into the Latino borrower conversation?

More than two-thirds of Latino students attend Hispanic-Serving Institutions, although HSIs represent less than one-fifth of institutions nationally—so, they play a big role. HSIs generally are less expensive than similar institutions. So, based on sticker price alone, it seems like a much more cost-friendly option for students who are looking to finance their degrees on their own rather than with loans. More than half of HSIs are also public, which has implications for how they’re funded and held accountable. That said, HSIs receive less public funding—about 68 cents for every public dollar that other institutions receive. So, while they’re keeping their costs low, they don’t have the resources to provide financial aid and support services for students. That’s important to keep in mind as we think about how we can support the hardest-hit communities, especially in this climate.

6. Why is it critical that we elevate Latino voices when we talk about student loan debt and solutions for Latino students?

We can share the nuances around our familial experience with debt and what information we’re still lacking in order to make informed decisions around college cost and attendance. We can share our stories around persistence and counteract the deficit narrative. Data tell us a lot, but they don’t tell the whole story—especially the persistence story—the way people from the community can. Our voices help to ensure that our choices and patterns aren’t seen as deficits, but as something we can harness to create a better system for all students.

[Editor’s Note: This Q&A is one of three interviews that delve into the experiences of borrowers of color. Wayne Taliaferro and Katherine Wheatle, strategy officers at Lumina Foundation, explore how the insights and findings of researchers’ of color can aid policymakers.]


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