The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A steady stream of Latino students was arriving on college campuses. Then the pandemic hit.

Experts worry that the drop in Latinos enrolling in college could erode years of higher education gains

Julianna Alvarez, 17, like many students during the pandemic, suffered a drop in grades. It made her question her plans to apply to college. (Taylor Glascock for The Washington Post)

Julianna Alvarez, 17, had it all worked out.

She would get into the John Jay College of Criminal Justice for this fall. She would pay tuition by winning a merit scholarship. After becoming the first person in her family to graduate from college, she’d find a job at the Drug Enforcement Administration, then work her way up to special agent, so she could spend her life helping “the whole world.”

Then the pandemic hit. Alvarez’s mother lost her restaurant job, and Alvarez, who is a Mexican American and lives in Nashville, had to start taking care of her younger siblings, guiding them through remote school. Her own attendance suffered. And her grades dropped, plunging from B’s and A’s to straight D’s.

Alvarez began questioning her plans to apply — anywhere.

“I feel like I wouldn’t get into any colleges [because of] my grades being down,” she said in December. “I also think about my parents having to pay, if I don’t end up getting a scholarship — and I probably won’t now.”

The steady stream of Latino students arriving on college campuses in recent years has been a bright spot in higher education, but some worry the pandemic could threaten those gains.

Historic Latino student wave reshapes many colleges. But access is uneven.

The most recent enrollment data disaggregated by race showed a 5.4 percent drop in the head count of Latino undergraduates in the fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. What’s more, 26.4 percent fewer high school graduates from schools with a high percentage of Black and Latino students went straight to college in 2020 compared with 2019.

Meanwhile, data about next year’s incoming class is mixed, with signs of promise but also areas of concern.

A Washington Post analysis of federal education data found staggering declines in the number of Latino students applying for financial aid to attend college in the fall — a critical step for those who are college-bound.

Around this time last year, 114,385 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms were submitted by students in schools with a Latino enrollment of 75 percent or higher. However, during the current cycle for the 2021-22 school year, 20,750 fewer applications had been submitted through Jan. 15 — an 18 percent drop. Collectively, applications are down 10 percent among all high school students.

The latest crisis: Low-income students are dropping out of college this fall in alarming numbers

Submissions with the Common Application, which is accepted at more than 900 colleges and universities, were down in December and have since crept up, but still are not at pre-pandemic levels. Some large, competitive universities such as the University of California system are reporting double-digit increases in applications from such students.

Still, higher education experts caution that an uptick in applications at some four-year institutions, while a good sign, is only a part of the story. More than 40 percent of Latino students attend community colleges, and those schools are struggling with enrollment. Even if more students are admitted to universities, money may still be a barrier as the economic crisis weighs heavily on Latino communities.

“The interest is there,” said Deborah A. Santiago, chief executive of the nonprofit advocacy group Excelencia in Education, “but the reality is we are still disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and the trade-offs are real.”

Minorities and lower-income Americans have contracted the coronavirus at higher rates and suffered higher levels of job losses. The financial disruption is forcing many Latino students to choose between their education and helping their families weather the recession.

“Because our adults tend to be blue-collar workers who have lost out in this economy, having additional hands, all able-bodied folks working, has become essential,” Santiago said. “Students are having to prioritize supporting their family — going to college is another way to do that, but the immediate need has superseded the longer-term goal.”

Alvarez said she knows her mother wants her to go to college, and that her parents would be so proud to see her graduate. But she also knows how helpful she is to her mother right now, at home where she can watch over her three younger siblings, ages 2, 3 and 7.

The teenager’s day begins before 8 a.m., when she has to wake up so she can help the 7-year-old log into online school. By the time Alvarez has solved the inevitable computer problems, her mom is usually asking whether she can go get something from the store.

Once Alvarez returns from that errand, her mother often has to head out herself, so the 17-year-old settles down to take care of the children for the rest of the afternoon.

“When my mom comes back, that’s when I gotta go back and do the work I missed, and the class I missed,” Alvarez said.

She worries about who will step in to fill the central role she has come to play in the household during the pandemic.

And she worries about money. If her suddenly dreadful grades shut her out from merit-based scholarships, she has decided she probably won’t go to college after all.

Common App’s president and chief executive, Jenny Rickard, said there is no way to know whether students are deciding not to attend college at all, or simply delaying their application process, perhaps hoping to join the workforce for a year to help mitigate financial stress induced by the pandemic.

Rickard said she was optimistic that the number of overall unique applicants has risen this year.

“However, we continue to be very concerned about the decline among fee waiver and first-generation applicants, which includes Latinx students as well,” Rickard said.

Whatever may be the students’ reason for not applying, the outcome will probably be the same: Studies have shown that deferring application in the final year of high school seriously decreases the ultimate chance that a teen attends college.

The switch to virtual schooling has robbed millions of students of easy access to college counseling: No longer can a kid just walk into a counselor’s office, or bump into a counselor in the hallways. While advisers are holding online college fairs, students, especially those who are the first in their family to pursue higher education, may need more comprehensive outreach.

Virtual appointments and drive-through sessions: How college counselors are helping students complete the FAFSA

Amanda Peterson, a teacher in Fresno, Calif., who works with low-income and first-generation high-schoolers, is seeing the effects of this firsthand. Peterson teaches an elective class at Sunnyside High School called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, part of a national program that sends historically underrepresented students to universities.

In a typical year, Peterson said, 99 percent of Sunnyside’s AVID kids — the vast majority of whom are Hispanic — apply to and attend college every year. But not in 2020.

Nearly 20 percent of her students have at least one D or F, Peterson said. At least five of her roughly 40 AVID participants have earned grades so low that they are officially ineligible for four-year universities in California.

Peterson thinks she knows some of the reasons for the steep drop in academic performance. Many of her students live in two- or three-bedroom apartments with families of up to eight people, creating an environment rife with distractions. Other teens have become the primary caretakers for younger siblings or cousins.

“When I’m talking to them, I can hear the weight of their sadness and pain,” she said. “And shame — some of them feel shame about their grades, and that’s been the hardest part.”

The struggles of one of her students, 17-year-old Ricardo Calvario, offer a window into what life has been like for some of these teenagers.

Calvario’s mother had to take leave from her job during the pandemic so she could stay at home and care for his younger sister, who just turned 1. To offset that loss of income, Calvario got a full-time job at Burger King — but had to take a temporary hiatus when he contracted the coronavirus and was briefly hospitalized.

He thinks he got sick from the drive-through customers, many of whom declined to wear masks as they shouted their orders. Nowadays, Calvario spends most of his days doing household chores and looking after his little sister while his mother and stepfather are at work or running errands.

He has little to no time for school.

“The only time I can do it is at 10 or 11 o’clock at night,” Calvario said. “It sucks not being able to do my work.”

Calvario originally hoped to attend a school in the UC system, but his tanking grades — he has one D, four C’s and one B — rendered that impossible. Instead, he recently applied to Fresno State University, which has a lower minimum GPA requirement for admission than the UC schools. He is desperate to matriculate there next year, convinced going to college will allow him to provide for his little sister: to ensure she doesn’t grow up “broke and poor and not able to buy stuff,” like he did.

But even Fresno is feeling more and more like a dream.

“I come from a place where not a lot of kids make it out and are able to do school,” he said. “I’m trying my best but online school is just holding me down. After the pandemic happened, I just couldn’t do it.”

There are some bright spots. The University of California system reported a 12.2 percent growth in applications from Latino students for next fall, while the University of Texas at Austin has seen a 15 percent increase.

Because community colleges have later application deadlines than other institutions, it is difficult to glean interest at this stage.

Enrollment is down about 6 percent at San Diego City College, a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution where about half the student body identifies as Latino.

Which colleges enroll the most Hispanic students?

President Ricky Shabazz has noticed many of his students enrolling in one or two classes rather than attending full-time, a trend that predates the pandemic but one that has since picked up. Many are struggling to meet their basic needs — housing, food and other living expenses — while trying to remain in school.

“We’re happy that they’re choosing education, but we know a full-time student is more likely to complete, transfer and be successful,” Shabazz said. “We’re seeing people having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet.”

Across the country, community colleges reported a nearly 28 percent decline in enrollment of Latino students this fall, after having grown 3.2 percent the prior year, according to Clearinghouse.

Disappointing fall enrollment of Latino students has left higher education experts concerned about the economic mobility of the nation’s largest minority group.

College enrollment takes a hit this fall amid coronavirus

“This kind of a dip in enrollment ... could widen the gap in attainment that we see nationally,” said Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education at the Education Trust, an advocacy group.

Nearly a quarter of Latino adults have earned an associate degree or higher, compared with roughly 46 percent of White adults, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Federal education data shows Latinos have made great strides in pursuing higher education, rising from 4 percent to 19 percent of all U.S. residents enrolled in college between 1976 and 2017. Yet many struggle to complete their degrees because of limited resources and may face further pressure because of the pandemic.

The trends unleashed by the pandemic “can end social mobility and relegate Latinos to the lowest incomes and positions in the United States,” Del Pilar said. “What’s at stake is Latinos will never move up to the types of professions with benefits, retirement plans, the type of long-term security that a college education provides.”

Preventing that dire prediction will require some government intervention, advocates say. Doubling the maximum federal Pell Grant award for college students from lower-income households would help lift the financial burden for many Latino families, as would universal tuition-free public higher education and simplifying the federal financial aid application.

As the first semester of her senior year bled into Christmas break, and then when school started back up again, Julianna Alvarez kept telling herself she would apply to college — next week.

One day, she sat down to think. Alone.

“Nothing in this life is easy,” she told herself. “I know I want a better future. And if you want something, you gotta work hard to accomplish that.”

She started getting up earlier and staying up later. She pushed through exhaustion, and the distracting noise in her household, to finish her classwork. Her grades improved.

And in late January, just before the deadline, Alvarez hit “submit” on five applications to five different colleges. Right after, she went to Wendy’s with her mother.

She waited until the food arrived to break the news: “Mom,” she said, “Today I applied to college. And John Jay was the first college I applied to.”