How colleges are helping Latinx students cope with the pandemic

Jose Salazar doesn’t like to ask for help. An introvert, he finds just talking to people to be draining.

But when Salazar lost his job waiting tables in mid-March for, as he tells it, not being “bubbly enough,” and his landlord told him he had to move out, the college junior knew he had no choice. With coronavirus cases climbing and campuses closing daily, he summoned the courage to ask the staff at Long Beach City College, in California, for help. 

His college found him a place to live, gave him $500 for rent, and provided him with a computer and Wi-Fi hotspot for the midsemester shift to online learning. 

“I really had to put myself out there,” said Salazar, whose family emigrated from Mexico when he was two months old. “It was hard, but it was worth it.”

The coronavirus has upended the lives of college students nationwide, but it’s having a disproportionate impact on some groups of people, including Latinx students and their families. They’re more likely than their White peers to have lost jobs; more likely to have had insufficient access to food and housing, and less likely to have the technology that makes remote learning possible. 

When colleges nationwide closed their campuses last spring, Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) — where at least one-quarter of undergraduate students are of Hispanic origin  rushed laptops, wireless hotspots and emergency aid into the hands of students like Salazar. They gave grants to unauthorized and international students, who were ineligible for federal aid, and they found safe ways to get food to students, converting campus pantries to a pre-bagged model and handing out grocery store gift cards.  

These emergency measures helped Latinx students stay enrolled through the spring semester, but they didn’t fix the underlying challenges of high unemployment and the digital divide. Now, as HSIs embark on an uncertain fall semester, they’re asking students what more they can do. 

In surveys taken in recent months, students say they need three types of support: financial, technological and emotional. 

Making ends meet

In March, when Salazar lost his job, 40% of Latinos reported that they or someone in their household had taken a pay cut, and nearly 30% said they had lost their job, as a result of the virus, according to The Pew Research Center. That’s compared with 27% and 20% of all U.S. adults, respectively. 

While unemployment rates have fallen since the spring, they remain at historic highs, and other Pew research finds many Latinos are struggling to make ends meet.  

The pandemic is causing some Latinx students to consider postponing college, one survey taken in July shows. And though the official numbers won’t be available for a few weeks, some schools, HSIs included, are projecting steep drops in fall enrollment.

At Texas’ El Paso Community College, where both fall enrollment and applications for federal financial aid were down 20% year-over-year in mid-August, President William Serrata said the school would lift a seven-year-old ban on late registrations as a way to give students more time to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and figure out their finances. By early September, overall enrollment was down only 5%, though enrollment among first-time students remained 23% lower than last year.

This spring Congress gave colleges $6 billion in aid to distribute to students whose lives were disrupted by the pandemic. Minority-serving colleges, including those designated as HSIs by the U.S. Department of Education, got an additional $1 billion. But with talks over a second major relief package stalled in Congress, colleges can’t count on more aid.

That means institutions like El Paso Community College, where 84% of undergraduate students were Hispanic or Latino in the fall of 2019 according to federal data, are stretching their remaining federal dollars while seeking additional funds from donors and foundations. They’re also encouraging students to appeal their financial aid awards if their financial circumstances have changed.

“Institutions are realizing that the No. 1 variable that can impact their numbers in the fall is financial aid relief,” said David Ortiz, senior vice president for operations at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

Getting tech help

In a survey of U.S. adults conducted in early 2019, just over half of Hispanic respondents said they owned a desktop or laptop computer, and 61% said they had broadband at home. That’s compared to roughly eight in 10 white respondents who said they had each.

While Latinx students typically have access to both computers and high-speed internet at college, the shift to remote learning has created challenges for students who returned to crowded homes or rural areas with limited or no wireless access. Some have been forced to share devices and broadband with multiple family members; others have had to drive long distances to get a signal.

“The notion of accessing Wi-Fi from a parking lot is a very real concept,” said Marla Franco, assistant vice provost for HSI Initiatives at the University of Arizona, where just over a quarter of undergraduate students last fall were Hispanic or Latino and nearly half were white, according to federal data. “It’s an aspect of many of our students’ lived experiences.”

The university spent the spring and summer upgrading its network of drive-up Wi-Fi sites. More than 12,000 people used the sites on an average week last spring, Franco said. 

El Paso Community College

El Paso Community College President William Serrata said the school would lift a seven-year-old ban on late registrations to help students figure out their finances.

The image by Epccedu is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0


Administrators at Long Beach City College, where federal data show 60% of undergrads were Hispanic or Latino as of last fall, have focused on distributing Chromebooks after an internal survey showed that many students were accessing courses through their smartphones. That finding was consistent with the 2019 survey, which found that Hispanic respondents were twice as likely as white respondents to say they only access the internet through their smartphone.

But getting laptops to the students who need them has been a challenge, said Mike Muñoz, vice president of student services. Many students will reserve a Chromebook but not show up to collect it. 

The college experimented with different collection times this spring — offering night and evening options  but the rate at which students showed up to get the devices remained low, hovering around 20% to 30%. So in June, school officials brought the computers out into the community, holding a pickup in a public library in a neighborhood with a large Hispanic population. Eighty-six percent of students showed up. 

More intentional advertising by the college and an increase in students needing support have contributed to a better show rate for on-campus pickups this fall, said Sonia De La Torre-Iniguez, the college’s interim dean for student equity.

Finding emotional support

Studies link the pandemic to a spike in reports of depression and anxiety among college students. Mental health was among the top five concerns of students at the University of Arizona surveyed recently, Franco said. Many said they missed the community and connections they’d built on campus.

Unauthorized students are under additional stress dealing with the double uncertainty brought by the pandemic and the ongoing fight over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. The Trump administration is trying to end the program, which lets people who came to the U.S. illegally as children remain here to study and work. 

Recognizing this, California State University, Sacramento, has asked mentors in its program for students who are unauthorized, or have family members who are, to check in with their mentees daily rather than once per week. Nearly all — 98%  of participants in the program are Latinx.

The university will continue to offer weekly support groups for unauthorized students, as well events where they can connect with faculty and staff.

“The notion of accessing Wi-Fi from a parking lot is a very real concept. It’s an aspect of many of our students’ lived experiences.”

Marla Franco

Assistant vice provost for HSI Initiatives, University of Arizona

Viridiana Diaz, associate vice president for strategic student support programs, said those online gatherings will be especially critical this year, with students stuck at home and some having never set foot on campus.

“One of the things we feel proud of is that we create a sense of belonging for students — a home away from home,” Diaz said. “In this virtual environment, it’s difficult.”

Salazar, who transferred to the University of California, Davis, this fall, still isn’t on firm financial footing — and he still doesn’t like asking for help. But his experience at the community college taught him that doing so is worth the effort. When his lease ended in early September, two weeks before campus housing became available, his new college put him up in a local hotel.

“The skills I learned as a result of having to interact with individuals (at Long Beach City College) allowed me to interact with individuals here,” he said. “I applied the template from there over here.”

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