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Yo soy El Futuro, courtesy of the Carolina Latinx Center
Photo courtesy of the Carolina Latinx Center

Together with the UNC Center for Community Capital and UnidosUS, the UNC School of Law released the first report arising from a Lumina Foundation grant to study the relationship between debt, achievement and equity in higher education, with a specific focus on Latino students.

Debt, Doubt, and Dreams: Understanding the Latino College Completion Gap analyzes 1,500 surveys of individuals who started, but did not complete, a college program. With 35 percent identifying as Latino, the data speaks directly to the barriers facing all students seeking higher education and identifies barriers that disproportionately burden Latinos.

Kate Sablosky Elengold
Kate Sablosky Elengold

Specifically, the research asks a critical question: How do attitudes about debt affect postsecondary completion for Latino students?

“Although Latino students show incredible drive to pursue higher education, completion rates for Latinos continue to lag,” said Kate Sablosky Elengold, assistant professor of law and director of Carolina Law’s Consumer Financial Transaction Clinic. “Our data illuminates and complicates a traditional narrative about Latino debt aversion, placing it in the context of other financial and environmental barriers to completion, many of which disproportionately burden Latino students.”

The report lays out the current information, statistics and research on higher education, Latinos in higher education, education debt and the Latino debt aversion narrative. The unique quantitative data collected through this project adds a layer of specificity and nuance to the current conversation about equity in higher education.

The report makes the following primary findings:

  • Latinos exhibit higher levels of debt aversion with respect to education debt compared to non-Latinos: Across three measures, Latino respondents reported heightened debt aversion relative to non-Latino respondents. The data, however, supports the notion that debt aversion is a complex and nuanced construct and is deeply connected to other stressors and experiences.
  • Debt aversion is only one of several financial barriers to completion for Latino students: Latino students reported heightened financial barriers while in college and as a barrier to completion at a significantly greater level than non-Latinos. The costs of college had the greatest power in explaining the differences in barriers to college completion between Latinos and non-Latinos.
  • Transportation consistently emerged as a barrier disproportionately burdening Latino students and had significant power in explaining the completion gap between Latinos and non-Latinos: In comparing Latinos and non-Latinos, transportation surfaced as the greatest differentiator with respect to financial stressors driving the need to leave a college program.

“Despite the strong gains that Latinos have made in college enrollment, we know that financial barriers—including ballooning college costs and non-tuition expenses—are the biggest deterrent to degree attainment. The findings presented in this study reflect how a debt-financed higher education system exacerbates existing inequities for Latino students and the need for immediate policy change to prevent Latinos from mortgaging their futures in exchange for a degree,” said Roxanne Garza, policy advisor of the Education Policy Project at UnidosUS.

“This research is novel and compelling,” noted Katherine Wheatle, strategy officer for Federal Policy and Racial Equity. “Lumina Foundation is thrilled to support higher education research that sheds new light on equity disparities in financing higher education for Latino students and families. This report, the first in a two-part series, will be of great help to policymakers and advocates looking to ground education reforms in equity analysis.”

Although the quantitative data is critical, the research team now begins qualitative data collection, interviewing up to 50 Latino survey respondents, along with program and policy analysts from UnidosUS affiliates around the country. Comprehensive results will be released in the upcoming year.

“We are grateful to Lumina Foundation for their commitment to funding this research and to our research partners at UnidosUS and the UNC Center for Community Capital,” said Elengold. “The ability to bring together minds from law, policy, social science and the community allows for a truly multi-disciplinary approach to the complex and knotty problem of equity in higher education.”

Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.

UnidosUS is a national nonpartisan organization that serves the Hispanic community through research, policy analysis and advocacy efforts.

The UNC Center for Community Capital conducts research on financial, social, and human capital that can advance knowledge, improve policy, inform practice and create more equitable social and economic systems.

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