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A new study argues that Latinx students disproportionately fear taking on student loan debt and face transportation challenges, which both pose formidable obstacles to completing college.

The mixed-method study from the University of North Carolina’s School of Law and UnidosUS, a Latinx civil rights organization, is based on a survey of about 1,500 respondents -- 35 percent of them Latinx -- between the ages of 18 and 40 who attended college but left before earning their degrees. It also draws on qualitative data from in-depth interviews with former students and program managers and experts at organizations focused on equity gaps among Latinx communities.

“I think stories are everything,” said Kate Sablosky Elengold, assistant professor of law at UNC’s law school and principal investigator for the study. “The numbers can’t tell us enough about what this data means.”

The report comes at a time when higher education leaders are particularly concerned about Latinx enrollment and graduation rates, as communities of color experienced disproportionately high infection rates, financial troubles and job loss during the pandemic. Latinx undergraduate enrollment fell by more than 7 percent in spring 2021 compared to the previous year, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data. The drop comes after years of glowing headlines about record numbers of Latinx students attending college. Meanwhile, a completion-rate gap for Latinx students persists, and higher education experts worry the pandemic will only exacerbate it. The graduation rate of the almost 3.8 million Latinx students enrolled in colleges and universities nationally trails behind their white peers by 10 percent, the report noted.

“The gains that we have made over the last several decades in terms of Latino education attainment could, at best, just not continue and, at worst, regress,” said Antonio Flores, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities.

The study found that Latinx former college students surveyed reported “transportation problems” as an obstacle to college completion at a rate 19 percent higher than their peers. Interviews fleshed out the array of issues the students faced: they lacked reliable access to a car and cobbled together multiple transportation methods, such as carpools, rides with friends or family who have cars, public transportation, and walking, to get to and from campus. Many also struggled to pay for transportation and to schedule their commutes into their routines.

“Most Latinos are commuting students, and therefore transportation has to be the key factor in whether they’re able to attend and succeed in college,” Flores said.

Conversations with former students also revealed how critical transportation was to Latinx students’ ability to juggle their full range of responsibilities, from getting from class to work to driving siblings to school.

“If the transportation fell apart, so did everything else,” Sablosky Elengold said.

The survey also found that Latinx former students reported more fears related to debt than their peers. Higher percentages of Latinx respondents feared that they wouldn’t be able to repay student loans, did not want to take on student debt or did not borrow for expenses they couldn’t afford in general.

The report said the fears of taking on debt are well-founded. It points to earlier UnidosUS research, which shows that Latinx borrowers report an average of more than $40,000 in student debt. Meanwhile, a third of Latinx students who took on debt didn’t graduate, compared to a fourth of white borrowers.

Latinx students who stopped out also expressed fear and shame about holding debt in interviews. At least two-thirds of the former students interviewed reported that their attitudes about borrowing affected their ability to finish college, but the report notes that their debt aversion was intermingled with other barriers such as work and family responsibilities. Meanwhile, all seven of the experts interviewed said they had witnessed debt aversion in their work with Latinx families.

One anonymous former student said she was “terrified” of winding up with student loan debt.

“I didn’t want to go into debt over college and I didn’t want that to be my start in life,” she said.

Others reflected on family members’ bad experiences with debt and predatory lending practices in general as a reason for their fear of student loans. One survey participant said she felt “very discouraged” from taking out student loans because she watched her mother struggle with credit card debt.

“I’ve always figured I’m not going to buy anything unless I have all the money to do it,” she said.

Amanda Martinez, senior policy analyst at UnidosUS and co-author of the report, said students also worried about putting additional financial strain on their families.

“Particularly with Latinos, we have our families and our nuclear communities in mind,” she said. “In this report, you start to hear the stories about this intense pressure of wanting to take care of the family, thinking about the long-term consequences of having debt.” Students spoke about how debt “was going to have potential impacts to their family, or they were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to provide for their family or how that debt might even affect their brothers and sisters’ ability to go to school.”

Flores said the report’s findings on debt aversion among Latinx students are “a confirmation of what we’ve known for a long time.” A high percentage of Latinx families are low income, and “any low-income person would be leery about borrowing more money that they don’t have,” he said. As a result, he finds Latinx students tend to work more hours than their peers to afford college, which adds stress and makes it harder for them to keep up with coursework and graduate.

Deborah Santiago, co-founder and CEO of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit focused on Latinx student success, worries that debt aversion means these students sometimes miss out on opportunities for financial support. For example, many colleges have used federal COVID-19 relief funding to clear debts owed to the institutions by students, but those funds won’t help Latinx students who have made all sorts of choices to avoid debt, whether that’s stopping out, working extra hours or attending college part-time, she said.

“To me, that exacerbates this debt issue because public policy is not meeting students where they’re at,” she said.

The report offers a number of recommendations to mitigate obstacles to college completion. It suggests institutions provide targeted information to Latinx students and families about paying for college, including in financial aid offers, among other suggestions.

However, the report notes that telling students to borrow more can’t be the answer. Santiago and others said financial literacy education needs to be paired with policy solutions. For instance, doubling the Pell Grant could assist debt-averse Latinx students who feel more comfortable with grants over loans, she said.

Flores believes the federal government can assist these students by directing more funding to Hispanic-serving institutions, which enroll two-thirds of Latinx students.

Martinez said college completion and retention grants proposed in President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan could help, as could subsidies and emergency grants for transportation provided by the colleges and universities.

Solutions are there, but “we just have to scale them, we have to invest in them and make sure everyone is being provided with enough capacity to actually implement these programs across the board and not just by chance be at an institution that has these supports,” she said.

Sablosky Elengold added that the report signals a need for major structural change in how students finance their education.

“One thing from this report that I think comes out clear is debt-financed higher education is not working for the Latino community,” she said. “It’s not helping with the equity gap in higher education, so we need to rethink who bears the risk and the burden of higher education in our society.”

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