As if the world wasn’t suffering enough due to the coronavirus pandemic, recent reports show that college enrollment has declined significantly. Such a decline poses a serious risk, particularly for Latino students, who are already at risk in the higher education system.
We’re not just talking about slightly fewer students enrolling in college; we’re talking about enrollment numbers that are way down from previous years and that are continuing to plunge.
According to a recent report from The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, freshman enrollment at community colleges is down by 22.7% this year, a decline that the center’s executive research director, Doug Shapiro, called “staggering.” Across all U.S. colleges and universities, enrollment is also down, dropping 16 % from last year.
We know why these enrollment numbers have declined. Given the damage that the coronavirus pandemic has done to this country in terms of health statistics, economic uncertainty, and unemployment numbers, it should come as no surprise that students and families across the nation have had to make a difficult choice where higher education is concerned.
Families are forced to consider the safety of attending colleges and universities and the logistical issues that come with in-person or virtual school, and the financial implications of sending children to college during a pandemic. With so many people struggling to make ends meet due to job loss or pay reduction, it’s a callous choice, and for minority populations in this country, it’s often not a choice at all.
It’s no secret that the virus has disproportionately impacted minority and lower-income groups regarding infection rates, deaths, and unemployment. As far as infections go, the NY Times reported that “Latino and African-American residents of the United States have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors,” according to CDC data. And in addition, “Black and Latino people have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people.”
When you look at the unemployment rates in response to the pandemic, you also see that minority populations were hit incredibly hard. According to William Spriggs, Howard University economist and chief economist for the AFL-CIO, Hispanic males have an unemployment rate of 16.7%, and Black male unemployment went up to 16.4%.
Similarly, the unemployment rate for Hispanic females went up to 20.2%, all of which is significantly higher than the unemployment rate for white males in the U.S., he explains in an NPR interview.
All of these factors and the disproportionate impact on the Hispanic and Black community have certainly caused, in part, the decline in college enrollment for students in those communities.
Without job security and the assurance of a steady income, minority families face difficult decisions about enrolling in colleges and universities, which is why we see such a sharp decline in enrollments, especially at community colleges where many Black, Latino, and low-income students enter the higher education system.
According to a survey by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, nearly two-thirds of Latino students reported dealing with insecurity around even their most basic needs, such as food and housing.
Beyond that, 37 % of Hispanics nationwide said their families were thinking about pumping the brakes on college attendance, according to reports from polling firm Latino Decisions.
It’s essential to recognize that this decline in enrollment is happening, disproportionately affecting minority students, and can have lasting effects that continue long after the Covid-19 pandemic is gone.
Since 2000, Latino college enrollment has steadily increased in the U.S., although we still have a long way to go in order to close the achievement gap between Hispanics and whites. But this drop off in enrollment has the potential to undo decades of progress and deeply damage educational equity and access to opportunity for minority populations for years to come.
“The big worry is that people who interrupt their education with the intention of completing it later don’t always do so,” explained Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education, a higher education trade group, to the NY Times. This is a problem because we know that the earnings gap between college graduates and those with less education continues to widen.
A drastic drop in college enrollment for minority groups could only exacerbate the already existing inequity in terms of opportunity and pay for Latinos in this country.