As national student debt approaches $1.7 trillion and college costs rise faster than wages, many are questioning the value of higher education. People from marginalized communities often take the biggest risk in pursuing degrees, as they shoulder higher debt and face a higher chance of not graduating.

Yet nearly 9 in 10 minority teens ages 14 to 18 said graduating from college is “very” or “fairly” important, compared with 75 percent of their White peers, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll. In all, 92 percent of Black and Asian teens along with 88 percent of Hispanic teens said that graduating from college was important.

The poll found that a 58 percent majority of teens said getting a four-year college degree was worth the cost, including 73 percent of Asian teens, 63 percent of Hispanic teens, 59 percent of Black teens and 55 percent of White teens.

Daniel Delgado, 17, has never second-guessed whether he was going to college. For as long as the high school senior in Orlando can remember, his parents have made higher education an inevitable part of his life.

“My mom went to college and has been drilling it in my head that I was going, too,” said Delgado, who participated in the Washington Post-Ipsos poll. “Even though my dad didn’t go, there was always the expectation that all of his kids would because college sets you up for the future.”

With an older sister in her last year of college, Delgado said he feels confident about navigating applications, essays and financial aid. A 2018 study by the Education Department found that family members have the greatest influence on teenagers’ views about post-high-school education and careers.

Delgado is uncertain which college will be the best fit, but he plans to study software engineering no matter where he lands. He is torn on whether to remain close to home to save money or head out of state. The decision, he said, will probably come down to the best financial aid offer.

College costs can deter students at any time, but the expense has proved prohibitive in the pandemic for many people of color and those with low incomes.

The public health and economic crisis has had an outsize impact on Black and Hispanic communities, which suffered high rates of fatalities and unemployment. The financial disruption sidelined teens of color, who found themselves working to support their families and putting their aspirations on hold.

Higher education experts say those struggles are evidenced by enrollment declines. College enrollment of Black and Hispanic undergraduates between fall 2019 and fall 2021 fell by 11.1 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Both groups have lost ground since the pandemic began, after years of fighting to narrow the racial attainment gap.

Still, the priority of obtaining a degree could bode well for an enrollment turnaround in the coming years. There are already some signs of promise.

Submissions of the Common Application, which is accepted at nearly 1,000 colleges and universities, are rebounding and surpassing pre-pandemic levels for Black and Hispanic students. As of Oct. 31, officials have tracked a 25 percent increase from 2019 in Black applicants and a 15 percent increase in Hispanic applicants.

Common App’s president and chief executive, Jenny Rickard, said the growth could be because more minority-serving institutions are using the application and more colleges are making test scores optional. She also suspects that families are emerging from the financial fog of the pandemic, giving students more confidence about pursuing their education.

“Students last year may have delayed applying to college because of the pandemic and their family circumstances, not being certain of finances,” Rickard said. “So students who may not have applied last year could be applying this year.”

Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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