‘Dreams Interrupted’ report explores completion barriers for Latino college students

UNC Law’s Kate Sablosky Elengold was the principal investigator for this study of the relationship between debt, achievement and equity in higher education, with a specific focus on Latino students.

Kate Sablosky Elengold
The principal investigator on the “Dreams Interrupted” research project was Kate Sablosky Elengold, assistant professor of law at UNC School of Law and director of the school’s Consumer Financial Transaction Clinic.

An aversion to taking on debt and lack of access to reliable transportation were major factors in Latino students’ ability and willingness to enroll and complete postsecondary education, according to a new study by UnidosUS and UNC School of Law that surveyed Latino students who began, but didn’t complete, a college program.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Latino students were enrolling in college in record numbers but trailing their white and Asian American peers when it comes to earning a degree. “Dreams Interrupted: A Mixed-Methods Study Assessing Latino College Completion” is a qualitative companion to the quantitative findings of the 2020 report “Debt, Doubt and Dreams: Understanding the Latino College Completion Gap,” providing a more compelling understanding of Latinos’ hesitancy to take on educational debt.

According to the new report’s findings, Latino students who grew up in economically vulnerable communities affected by income inequality, systemic racism and predatory lending practices, associated college debt with a crushing financial burden that could undermine their family’s financial security and stability.

For Latino students, who often come from low-income, multigenerational households with low wealth and savings, the financial stakes of defaulting on a loan were much higher for all members of the family. The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic exposed the precarious situation facing Latino households, who experienced significant job and wage losses at the start of the outbreak and saw their savings depleted.

Access to transportation also surfaced as another critical barrier to completion. Whether it’s access to a reliable car or reliable public transit, interview participants pointed to a range of transportation-related challenges including cost, scheduling, work and family obligations, and reliability, as factors impeding their ability to complete their studies. These hurdles in simply getting to class disproportionately burdened Latino students.

“Latino youth value higher education as evidenced by the growing share entering our higher education system,” said Amanda Martinez, senior policy analyst at UnidosUS and co-author of the report. “However, there continues to be an absence of targeted interventions and supports needed to overcome the financial and transportation-related barriers preventing students from earning their degrees and closing the completion gap. We must re-examine how we support our students and how we approach higher education as a whole to ensure that we are not making young Latinos choose between financial security and higher education.”

“Our debt-financed higher education system is not serving equity goals in higher education,” said Kate Sablosky Elengold, assistant professor of law at the School of Law, director of the school’s Consumer Financial Transactions Clinic and principal investigator on the research project. “As our data show, Latino students are disproportionately burdened by a system that requires a student and her family to shoulder the entire risk of higher education, especially in light of information asymmetry, unregulated predatory institutions and an uncertain and discriminatory labor market.”

“Lumina Foundation puts racial equity at the forefront of our work as we promote affordable education for everyone,” said Lumina Strategy Officer Katherine Wheatle. “This study is one of a series of projects designed to help us understand student loan debt, borrowing behaviors and solutions for borrowers of color. With a significant increase in Hispanic and Latino student enrollment in higher education, the field must deepen its understanding of how growing unaffordability impacts families.”

About the study

The study surveyed more than 1,500 individuals aged 18-40 who began, but never finished, a college program and were no longer enrolled. Of the respondents, 35% identified as Latino. Using findings from the survey data, the researchers conducted follow-up interviews with 24 Latino survey respondents and seven program experts working with varied Latino communities on college access, success and completion. The research was funded by Lumina Foundation. Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.