Debt and Access for Latino Students

By Hilda Hernández-Gravelle, Senior Research Fellow "It is like the white house on the top of the hill," a staff member I interviewed at a community college said to describe the way many Latino / Hispanic students and their families view financial aid. The idea of receiving a free scholarship or financial assistance that does not need to be repaid seems too good to be true. Consequently, sometimes students do not apply for the financial aid they are eligible for. There are other cultural factors for Latinos that can contribute to difficulties securing financial aid services and become impediments to college access. Some of these include: fear of debt; mistrust of lenders; and conflicts between family financial obligations and educational aspirations. While Latinos generally have a strong commitment to education, many believe that if you can't afford to pay for it up front, you can't attend. Such assumptions, along with a lack of awareness in the higher education sector about other cultural differences, make college seem unattainable to students who might otherwise be able to attend. The Los Angeles Times published an excellent story on this phenomenon in January 2007.

Attention to the challenges faced by Latinos in higher education is beginning to grow in the college access field. The Lumina Foundation just completed an important dynamic rich media report and web site on access and success for Latinos. Excelencia in Education also recently released survey results on enrollment and attainment for Latino students. The Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles released a report at the beginning of this month on the "mismatch" between Latino students’ aspirations and experiences titled, "An Examination of Latina/o Transfer Students in California's Postsecondary Institutions."

At the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education, held in Orange County California in March 2007, Mari Luna De La Rosa and I presented The Strategy of Debt: How Hispanic Students Pay for College.This presentation introduced financial aid data and cultural factors that affect how Hispanic students use available aid. In an interactive presentation, we heard the perspectives of financial aid service providers and college administrators, highlighting the need to be aware of and responsive to cultural differences in financial aid service delivery.

The presentation was well-attended and received, demonstrating the need for dissemination of information that shapes understanding of financial aid among different groups. Given the debt aversion that exists among Hispanic students, and the resulting impact on college access, the Institute will explore how to better inform Hispanic students, families and administrators about college costs, debt, and the financing of higher education.

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