College enrollment is down due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the Latino student population has been hit particularly hard.
Spring 2021 undergraduate enrollment is down 5.9% from last year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Latinx enrollment, which had been rising before the pandemic, showed some of the biggest swings: A decrease of 1.9% in spring 2021 compared with an increase of 2.1% in spring 2020. Community colleges, which include large Latinx student populations, saw a 13.7% decrease in enrollment in spring 2021, compared with an increase of 1.7% in spring 2020. The study uses the term Latinx, intended to be a gender-neutral way to describe the Latino community.
Students dropped out for a variety of reasons: Family members became sick or lost their jobs and the student had to help support the family. Or, they just couldn't afford it anymore. And, instead of falling further behind, they decided to drop out.
The pandemic also worsened some of the problems already faced by Hispanic college students, including language barriers, challenges due to immigration status, or lack of knowledge of the application process because they are first-generation students.
"Latino students were disproportionally affected in the pandemic, since we are the most economically vulnerable," said Deborah Santiago, co-founder and chief executive officer of Excelencia in Education, an organization that looks to accelerate Latino student success in higher education. "There was less enrollment and less persistence, but looking at the bigger picture, in one year, we saw five years of growth lost in terms of enrollment and representation, and that is big."
As the Latino college enrollment numbers decrease, Santiago says the worry lies in the missed opportunities and exposure for these students.
Sergio Blacutt, a sophomore at Northern Virginia Community College studying political science, said his decision to drop out stemmed from the fact that he had a hard time with remote learning.
"Throughout the Zoom meetings, I personally didn't feel comfortable with it. I get distracted easily, so it was not possible, and I gave up. I stopped showing up and I didn't finish the last semester," Blacutt said.
When Blacutt tried to go back to school, he was denied financial aid because he stopped showing up to class during the spring 2020 semester.
On top of that, Blacutt tore his ACL while riding his skateboard and could not afford doctors' visits since his father lost his job, leading to everyone in his family losing health coverage.
Now, Blacutt is on track to earn his associate's degree and plans to transfer to a four-year school.
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Latino college students faced family, financial challenges during the pandemic
For many Latino college students, financing their education was a barrier even prior to Covid, and the pandemic exacerbated this challenge.
Jorge Alvarez, a first-generation college student with one semester left to go at Rutgers University — New Brunswick, is studying public health with a minor in biological sciences on the pre-med track. Alvarez was able to get federal work study and was a resident assistant. Other than that, he budgeted and took out loans to cover his additional expenses.
However, during the pandemic, things changed dramatically.
"There was a huge gap in terms of me making money in order to fund things that I have to pay for, like my car insurance," Alvarez said. "I ended up relying on my little savings, Covid relief check, and really spent a lot of time finding different ways to make money. I would try to sell things on Facebook Marketplace to try to get by, but it was nothing substantial."
For other students the overwhelming responsibilities drove them to make drastic decisions.
Guillermina Gutierrez Martinez, a senior at the University of Washington Seattle studying history, was already thinking about the idea of dropping out for the semester when the pandemic first hit.
"I remember around that time I was like maybe school isn't for me. I was moving out, I had to go help my mom because she's recovering, she hasn't been working, I'm the only one working. I'm like pulling 30 to 40 hours shifts a week at work on top of being a full-time student and on top of trying to figure out what I want to do major-wise," Gutierrez Martinez said.
The piling responsibilities she was facing caused her grades to suffer, and when she found out that she could drop out with a minimal fee, she did.
"I ended up dropping the quarter because I was just so overwhelmed with having to catch up again in school, and I still have to drive home again every weekend, and the time I could be using to study I was having to go back home and help my mom," she said.
Currently, Gutierrez Martinez is enrolled and working for the university. She won't be graduating on time but took summer classes to make up for the quarter that she missed.
The pandemic impacted families on different levels, said Yanely Espinal, the director of educational outreach at Next Gen Personal Finance, an organization that helps schools teach kids about personal finance.
"I saw a lot of young people in low-income families, not because they wanted to but because of the impact of Covid, check out of schoolwork, check out of the motivation to keep up with classes, so they could focus on supporting their family," said Espinal, adding that the language barrier and financial resources affected Latino families during the pandemic.
Institutions across the country had to quickly adapt to the uncertainty of the Covid pandemic, requiring them to make changes in order to provide their students with some sense of normalcy.
Magdalena Hinojosa, senior vice president for strategic enrollment and student affairs at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said its enrollment numbers actually increased. According to the university's website, in fall 2020 the institution saw a record enrollment increase to more than 32,000, compared with just over 29,000 students during the fall 2019 semester.
Hinojosa said the fact that UTRGV saw enrollment growth while other schools experienced declines can be attributed to its financial assistance programs and other initiatives.
The UTRGV Tuition Advantage program covers eligible students' tuition and mandatory fees that are not covered by federal and state aid. Prior to the pandemic only those students whose families made $75,000 or less a year were eligible, but once Covid hit, the income cap increased to $95,000.
Additionally, Hinojosa said the university worked with its departments to continue to provide summer employment to its students and created a summer relief program. The institution continued these relief programs all the way through the fall semester.
For those students who don't know how they will pay for college or are faced with a similar decision, Espinal suggests talking about it.
"I want you to open up and talk to people about money, and step two, start reading every day," Espinal said. "I think that learning more can allow you to empower yourself financially, but also empower your family and others in your community as well."
Santiago says students should never take "no" for an answer. If they're running into problems at school, whether it's their finances, coursework or whatever, they should reach out for help. And if one person or organization isn't helping, keep reaching out until you find people who can get you the help you need.
CNBC's "College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Denisse Quintanilla is a senior at Monmouth University studying Spanish and communications with a concentration in media studies and production. She is currently an intern at CNBC en Espanol, writing scripts for Informe CNBC, while also translating and producing videos to Spanish for Telemundo. Her mentor is Lisa Villalobos. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.
Latinx is a recently coined term intended to be a more gender-neutral way of describing members of the Latino community, but it has not been widely embraced by the community. Latino is used here unless Latinx is specifically referenced by a person or entity.