The USA TODAY Network launched a series on the Latino community in the U.S. called Hecho en USA, or made in America. Roughly 80% of all Latinos living in the U.S. are American citizens. But media coverage of Hispanics tends to focus on immigration and crime, instead of how Latino families live, work and learn in their hometowns. Hecho en USA tells the stories of the nation’s 59.9 million Latinos – a growing economic and cultural force, many of whom are increasingly born in the United States.
CHICAGO – College student Miguel Casimiro looked at his biology grade and knew the time had come: He had to drop out.
The “F” grade came after several frustrating years. There was his commute to Northeastern Illinois University campus, which required him to travel 40 minutes each way by bus from his job at his parent’s corner store. He worked two other jobs, one where he sat behind a desk greeting students at the university and another at a video game store. The relationship he was in soured and he found himself obsessed with figuring out how to salvage it.
Years earlier, at his parents’ and teachers’ behest, he had worked hard to get into college, sending applications, essays and test scores to 10 schools. After he enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University, he participated in a university support program, Proyecto Pa’Lante, geared toward Latino students like him who needed help learning the basics of academic life, like which classes count toward degrees. But the program was only for the first two years of school. After that, Casimiro was on his own.
A few days after grades were posted in 2014, Casimiro and his mother sat down with an administrator at Northeastern Illinois. They agreed he would drop out rather than pay for another semester he could barely afford.
“I felt the help I was being offered wasn’t the help I wanted,” he said.
Pushed by their parents and educators, more Hispanics than ever are attending college in the hopes of securing their place in the U.S. middle class, presenting a growing challenge for institutions that in the past have catered to mostly white students. As they navigate challenges such as the bureaucracy of higher education and paying tuition in an environment where so few teachers, administrators and students look like them, many Latino students say they are worried higher education institutions are happily taking their money without making sure their specific needs are being met.
The number of Hispanic students enrolled in college rose from 3.17 million in 2016 to 3.27 million in 2017, making them only one of two demographic groups that saw an increase in college attendance, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s nearly double the 1.4 million Latino students who attended college in 2000.
Meanwhile, college enrollment overall has been on the decline for years. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, there were 19.2 million students enrolled on campuses for the fall 2015 semester. Earlier in 2019, enrollment had dropped to 17.5 million.
It used to be that colleges had a large pool of students to draw from. The retention rates among Hispanic students, however, were “less than optimal,” said Deborah Santiago , one of the co-founders of Excelencia in Education, an advocacy group focused on Latino students. But neglecting Hispanic students is bad business these days, she said.
“You can’t just enroll them if you’re not going to help them graduate,” Santiago said. “The only growth population is Hispanics. So we’re saying you have got to focus on what it means to serve.”
Paying for and surviving college
Latino students often hail from different backgrounds compared with other students. About 70% of Latino undergraduates in higher education come from families in the bottom half of earners, according to federal data analyzed by the college lobbying group the American Council on Education. That’s comparable to the black population, where nearly 75% of students come from the bottom half of earners. Meanwhile, about 2 in 3 white students come from the top half of earners.
Nearly half of Latino students are the first in their family to go to college, according to data analyzed by Excelencia. And just under half of them were eligible for federal Pell Grants, money only given to those with a high financial need. In contrast, just 1 in 5 white students was first-generation, and about 1 in 3 qualified for Pell Grant money. What’s more, only 22% of Hispanics over the age of 25 have an associate’s degree or higher compared to 40% of the general population.
Such financial strains can make surviving college especially difficult for Latino students.
Several times a week, Leslie Hurtado, 23, will rush to get to Northeastern Illinois’ computer lab to snag one of the few Apple computers. If she doesn’t get there first thing in the morning, she has to wait until after her classes have finished and others have left the campus, when the computer lab is not as busy. Hurtado, a Chicago native, said she wants to become a broadcast journalist. She needs the video editing software on these computers to do her homework because she can’t afford to buy it for her personal computer.
On a recent night, long after her classes, Hurtado sat in the computer lab, her eyes half-closed from lack of sleep, stitching footage of herself covering random news on campus, like the recent student protests of a talk given by Sean Spicer, the former spokesman for the White House. Her footage is usually shot on her iPhone because she said she can’t borrow a more professional camera from the college. She gets her homework done in between her job working as a teaching assistant.
It had been a particularly exhausting Wednesday. Hurtado had spent the earlier part of the day in a government office trying to navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth to help her husband secure his legalization paperwork. He was one of the receipts of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program that offered immunity for two-year periods to immigrant children brought to the country without documentation. The screen glared on her face.
“My eyes hurt a lot right now,” she said.
Northeastern Illinois is the third college Hurtado has attended in the past five years. In 2014, she was initially lured to Columbia College Chicago by promises of a diverse student body, but when she got there she found she was often the only Latino person in her class. The other students also had parents who worked in the media industry, so they were more familiar with the field. The professors, many of them white, seemed to focus on other students and made her feel small.
At colleges across the U.S., about 73% of full-time professors are white, compared to just under 5%t who are Hispanic. That doesn’t reflect the modern student body nationally. A little more than half of the undergraduate students are white, and just under 20% are Hispanic .
For Hurtado, more troubling than being excluded culturally was how much the college cost. Her father had urged her to go to college and even offered to pay her way. But neither she nor her dad realized how much it would cost. When the first $5,000-a-semester tuition bill came, he couldn’t pay, and she had to drop out midway through the semester.
“I came in there with no knowledge of what I was going to get into,” she said.
That was a half-decade ago. Hurtado said she wishes she had known to save money while in high school to help pay for school. She said she feels behind now since she is still a few semesters away from graduation.
After dropping out of Columbia, Hurtado went to a community college briefly before transferring to Northeastern Illinois in the fall 2018 semester. She said she feels more at home on this campus, where plenty of students look like her, and she gets to report on issues that affect the Latino community in her classes.
The tuition bill is also more palatable. The average tuition at Northeastern for an in-state student is roughly $4,849 and after her aid package, Hurtado’s bill is closer to $2,000.
Hurtado does question what Northeastern Illinois is doing with her money: Like why do they invest in a dorm building on campus when it’s clear that most of the students are commuters? And she can’t understand why money was spent to bring Spicer to the campus when so many students were protesting. The Trump administration has taken a hard stance against immigration, a topic near the heart for many of these students who are immigrants themselves or who have family members who are. Why couldn’t that money, she wondered, be directed toward lowering her tuition or providing more resources to students?
She was not alone in asking those questions. Miriam Garcia, 23, was selling stickers on a recent day inside one of the spacious hallways where students come and go. It was for a fundraiser for her coed Greek life group, Alpha Psi Lambda. She started her studies in criminal justice in 2014 and hopes to finish by fall semester 2020.
Garcia said she doesn’t want to end up in jail or otherwise harmed like many people she knew from her neighborhood. She hopes receiving a college degree will help her secure her place in the world, but she feels like has to jump through hoops to get there.
Navigating financial aid each semester has often left her flustered. And even small costs, like a mandatory bus fee, are galling when money is tight. She spends three days of her week working at a local dog day care. More help from the school would go a long way, she said.
“I don’t even have a weekend,” she said.
More American universities are increasingly Hispanic
Northeastern Illinois University’s home is here on Chicago’s northside, a few blocks away from the suburbs. Sparse brutalist buildings make up most of the administrative offices and classrooms. Most of the roughly 8,100 students commute to get there, rattling along in buses through the congested Chicago traffic or in the Chicago Transit Authority’s brown line. They don’t have sports teams that compete nationally, but there is a sweeping lawn, a gym, a student union building and a bookstore, all hallmarks of a college campus.
While the overall student population has fallen in recent years, the percentage of Hispanic students at the school has risen from 31% in 2010 to about 37% n 2018, the most recent year for which federal data is available.
The university started as a teaching college in 1867 and in 1961 it was relocated to its current location on the Chicago’s northside. Francisco X. Gaytan, an administrator at the school, said during the 60s it served middle-class white families in the area, but that changed as more Hispanic students wanted access to the same higher education opportunities.
At one point, in the early seventies, Puerto Rican students pushed for the school to better serve its Hispanic students, which resulted in the creation of the academic support program Proyecto Pa’lante. It was initially an effort to expand Hispanic recruitment at the university, according to a history of the program written by Maximino Torres, a counselor and coordinator with the program during its founding.
Decades later, dozens of new students continued to enroll in the program. Many of them gathered on a recent Thursday in a dimly lit lecture hall to discuss how to succeed at higher education.
“When you go on a road trip, do you plan it out?” asked the instructor, Elizabeth Villarreal.
Making it to graduation day is similar, she said, because students need a plan. Students can take summer classes, for example, to speed the process along, she advised.
Jorrin Andre, 18, listened to Villareal’s lessons, but he said later he wasn’t sure how long he will stay enrolled at Northeastern Illinois. Andre, who is a first-generation college student, found the academic pace at Northeastern to be a little bit too slow. And he said living in the dorm felt like living in an empty building, not exactly the vibrant student life his family had wanted for him when he enrolled at school.
Pa’lante is one of the many services directed at Hispanic students here at Northeastern. The university also has El Centro, a satellite campus that offers programs for Latinos, including a recent “Festivals de FAFSA,” a workshop geared toward helping Spanish-speaking students and families fill out federal forms necessary for financial aid. There are also classes during nontraditional hours in the evenings and weekends for students whose jobs may prevent them from attending classes during the day.
Northeastern Illinois also has an administrator dedicated to helping undocumented students. And the university’s main campus has a space called the Pedroso Center, a study space geared toward making students feel comfortable both culturally and physically. So while there are plenty of couches to lounge on, there’s also talks about Native American tribes or immigration issues.
Despite these programs, the graduation rates at Northeastern Illinois University may be disheartening to those looking for a guarantee of success. Only about 1 in 5 students who start at the university will graduate in six years.
The low tuition means the school can’t offer the flashiest student services, like high-tech gyms, multiple computer labs or student cafeterias equipped with sushi chefs. But the school is doing what it can with limited resources, said Gaytan, the school administrator.
“We meet them where they are,” he said. “If you truly believe that the United States is a place where you could get a leg up, then this is the prototypical American university. But you got to invest in it.”
The cost of college can be a barrier for Latinos
The success rates look more encouraging at a nearby private college, North Park University, which is less than a 10-minute walk away from Northeastern Illinois. Visitors to the campus on the north side will first see an ornate, black metallic gate, leafy trees and rolling green lawns. The brick buildings with Greek-style columns will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a college on a TV show. It’s also what some may consider a traditional university in that a handful of North Park teams compete in the NCAA’s Division three sports, including football, cross-country and women’s rowing.
In the mid-1890s, the school was founded by the Evangelical Covenant Church, a Christian denomination for Swedish immigrants in the U.S. Depending on the course material, classes were $4 to $7 a month, or about $120 to $200 in today’s money. It graduated its first four-year class in 1960.
These days, most of North Park’s first- or second-year-students live on campus, a practice that is associated with increasing the percentage of students who return for their sophomore year. It also reduces the time they have to spend off-campus and tends to increase the amount of time they can study.
And here, like many colleges, the Hispanic population is growing. In 2010, only about 12% of the student population was Hispanic, but by 2018 that percentage more than doubled to 30%.
Nearly 60% of students who started at this university in 2010 graduated with a degree in six years. And nearly 3 in 4 freshmen enroll for their sophomore year. Roughly 2 in 5 students come from nonwhite families.
North Park costs about $40,000 a year to attend, including room and board, though many students qualify for grants, scholarships and other forms of aid that help reduce the price.
That’s the case for Pedro Garcia, who attended high school a few miles away from North Park and applied because some of his friends had spoken highly of the university.
At first, the cost stunned him. He had to scramble to scrounge up money from friends and family to cover the bill. Complicating matters is the fact that Garcia is also a DACA-receipt, meaning he can’t access the traditional sort of federal aid available to other students, such as federal student loans or Pell Grants. He said he ended paying about $10,000 a year in his freshman year because of financial aid from the university and private scholarships. His second year cost about half as much when he was able to work as a resident adviser, which offset his housing costs.
Garcia said he wishes tuition was a bit cheaper so he and his peers wouldn’t have to work so hard to attend. The campus sometimes feels empty, he said, because so many students need a job to cover the cost of college.
North Park can also be a bit of a culture shock. Garcia went from a high school where Hispanic students were the majority and he only had one white friend, to a campus where there are “a bunch of white people,” he said.
There are also few nonwhite professors, he said, but that won’t stop him from pursuing his degree.
“I have gotten used to being in situations where I am the only Hispanic,” he said.
Colleges seek federal dollars to serve Latino students
Both Northeastern Illinois and North Park are considered by the federal government to be “Hispanic-serving institutions,” or colleges where at least 25% of full-time equivalent students are Hispanic. Only 17% of all higher education institutions are Hispanic-serving, but they enroll about 66% of Latinos, according to Excelencia in Education.
In 1994, there were 189 of these institutions. As of 2017, there are 523 of them .
A group of activists in the early ’90s recognized that similarities among the schools serving Hispanic students and pushed for the designation. It was meant to help fund these schools through federal money. Many of these institutions have long been underfunded compared to their peers, in part, because they charge low tuition, rely heavily on public funding and don’t have large endowments to cover gaps when that funding shifts.
And with more institutions, including some of them monied and large, becoming Hispanic-serving institutions, more colleges and universities will be requesting from that pool of federal funds, meaning there will be less federal money to go around.
That competition will extend to recruiting students, as well. Which means more schools are going to have to step up their game if they want to attract the best Latino students.
But many aren’t prepared at this point to do just that, experts said. These institutions are not monolithic, and that’s partially because many Hispanic-serving institutions didn’t start out intentionally to serve these students. They become Hispanic-serving often when the Latino population in an area grows, said Vanessa Sansone, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who studies these colleges.
The ones that do the best job of helping these students, she said, are mindful of the experiences Latino students are bringing to the table. They’ll try to meet students in their communities and offer orientation materials in both Spanish and English.
“It would behoove institutions to get in front of this… because these are the needs that they’re going to have anyway,” Sansone said.
Santiago, one of the co-founders of Excelencia, said more colleges also need to make sure students have access to financial aid and hire more diverse faculty because many students are pushing for these changes. The organization rates universities for tracking their students, getting them to graduate and creating a welcoming culture for Latino students.
Going back to school to help other Latinos
For Casimiro, now 26, giving up on his education was never an option. After he dropped out of Northeastern Illinois in 2014, he decided to enroll in a local community college for a semester to pull up his grades.
He knew that wouldn’t be enough to ensure his success. So when he did enroll at Northeastern Illinois again in 2015, he started a student group focused on the needs of Latino students. It had nine members initially and has since grown to 30 students They have discussed politics, watched movies and raised money for scholarships.
Casimiro loved his experience so much, he decided to continue at Northeastern Illinois after he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications. He is now taking classes for his master’s degree in the same subject.
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.