Do popular proposals to address higher education affordability support Latino student success?

by Deborah Santiago and Janette Martinez

Excelencia’s analysis of federal data on Latino students shows that while all of these proposals would benefit Latino students, each one alone would not be enough to meet the needs of Latino students to ensure they succeed in postsecondary education.

On and off the campaign trail, common policy proposals emerged around improving higher education to better serve students. As the nation and a new Congress consider how to best support Latinos and their postsecondary success, it’s important to take a closer look at the data and ensure that policy proposals address issues of educational equity. Latinos have been hard hit by the economic and health effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the road to recovery requires equitable access and completion in higher education for Latinos.

Excelencia in Education’s analyzed five of these proposals to determine if they would support Latino student success:1) free tuition, 2) debt forgiveness, 3) doubling the Pell Grant, 4) creating a new institutional grant program, and 5) creating new workforce training programs. In part one of this two part series, we look at the first three proposals and their potential impact on affordability.

Proposal: Free tuition at public colleges and universities

Would free tuition provide sufficient access and affordability to college for Latinos?
No, free tuition alone is not enough to provide sufficient access and affordability for Latino students. While the vast majority of Latino students would qualify for free tuition under this plan, tuition makes up only a quarter of students’ costs. A true investment in Latino student success should go beyond tuition and ensure that students have the financial resources to meet their basic needs, such as housing, books, childcare, transportation, and food. (Note: our analysis assumes a free tuition program would be set up as a last-dollar program, similar to most free tuition programs around the country.)

Consider the data on Latinos’ income, enrollment, and costs:

1) What are Latino dependent and independent students’ incomes?
About 92% of Latino dependent students are from families with incomes less than $125,000, and 100% of independent Latino students have incomes of less than $125,000 (Table 1).

2) Where do Latino students enroll?
The vast majority (96%) of Latino students enroll in either a public institution or a private, under-resourced Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI (Table 1).

What is the cost of college?
The cost of college goes beyond tuition; basic living costs make up the majority of the costs students face. Tuition makes up less than a quarter of the costs that Latino students face. Most Latino students would qualify for free tuition under the Biden proposal, but it would not be enough to alleviate the full costs that students face today.

Non-tuition costs include the price of attendance minus tuition and fees, meaning basic needs such as housing, books, childcare, transportation, and food. Based on data from the National Postsecondary Aid Survey (NPSAS), average non-tuition costs are significantly higher than tuition and fees at public institutions and still significantly large at private four-year institutions. Given this, students are left with significant remaining costs after subtracting tuition, as shown in Table 2.

Proposal: Double the Pell Grant

Would doubling the Pell Grant dramatically help Latino students meet their financial needs?

Yes, doubling the Pell Grant would dramatically help Latino students meet their financial needs and could increase their access and retention in higher education. First, Latinos are more likely to participate in Pell than any other type of financial aid. Second, the amount would help Latinos cover more of their costs. Today, the maximum Pell Grant of $6,395 covers about a third of Latinos’ cost of attendance at public four-year universities and about two-thirds at public two-year institutions. Given that many Latinos already qualify and use Pell, doubling the Pell Grant would help Latino students meet more of their financial needs to access, persist, and earn a degree.

Consider the data on Latinos and Pell Grants:

Would doubling the Pell Grant help cover a greater share of Latinos’ average annual college costs?
Yes. The average annual cost of attendance for all Latino students is about $16,000. Currently, Latinos’ average Pell award covers 24% of the total annual cost of college. Increasing Latinos’ average Pell Grant award to $7,710 would cover 48% of the cost.

Proposal: Debt cancellation of $10,000

Would a $10,000 debt cancellation alleviate Latino borrowers’ debt burdens?
Yes, debt cancellation would significantly alleviate Latino borrowers’ debt burdens. Latino borrowers would see a dramatic decrease of their student loan debt, and many borrowers would see a complete forgiveness of their debt. The debt cancellation would help both graduates and non-completers, potentially allowing the latter to return to higher education and complete their degrees.

Consider the data on Latino federal student loan borrowers and debt:

For more information about Excelencia in Education’s policy work, visit edexcelencia.org/policy.

Excelencia informs, leads, & accelerates Latino student success in higher education through research, evidence-based practices, and leadership.