El Paso Community College President William Serrata is working against the clock to convince both new and current Latino students to enroll in the fall despite coronavirus-related uncertainties. Otherwise, they may be less likely to earn a degree.
"Higher education will become even more important" for Latinos' economic recovery since more than 26 million people have filed for unemployment due to coronavirus-related business closures, he said during a media call Wednesday with the nonprofit Excelencia in Education, which measures how higher education institutions are enrolling, retaining and graduating Latino students.
As colleges and universities get ready to wrap up the academic year in upcoming weeks, Hispanic-Serving Institutions are working on long-term strategies as they seek to better prepare Latinos for life after the pandemic. At HSIs, at least a quarter or more of the student body is Latino.
"We understand the disproportionate impact that this crisis has on our most vulnerable students," said Erika Beck, president of California State University Channel Islands. "I think it also highlights the role that Hispanic-Serving Institutions will play as a bridge to a post-pandemic future, as well as a post-pandemic economy and society."
While college enrollment among Latino students had been increasing over the past decade and reached a record high in 2017, Hispanics still lag behind in college completion, according to Excelencia's research. At least 22 percent of Latino adults have earned an associate degree or higher, compared to 39 percent of the general population. High costs, a limited knowledge of college and trying to balance work, family and academics are the most common barriers preventing Hispanic students from finishing college on time.
The panorama gets more complicated as the pandemic heaps great economic stress on Latino families.
"For context, during the Great Recession, you saw unemployment peak at 10 percent. We're nearly twice that now," Serrata said. However, of the "12 million jobs that were created after the recession, over 99 percent went to individuals with degrees and certificates. So, we can't overemphasize the importance of higher education as the really, only pathway to the middle class, in particular for the population that we're describing."
Remote education will become 'the norm'
Mark Rosenberg, president of Florida International University, is rethinking how "to meet students where they are," adapting to a learning environment that responds to the needs Latino students had before the pandemic— as well as after it subsides.
For Rosenberg, the key is in transitioning from a "student-centric institution" into a "learner-centric institution."
"A lot of our students are adult learners. They have family responsibilities and they may not have the opportunity to get your traditional four-year, six-year degree," he said. "They need it now because they're working full or part time. They need a learning or a competency now and we're very comfortable in moving into that space."
Rosenberg anticipates the university will be ramping up its individualized learning program, which is designed for students who have concerns over balancing their academic performance and life responsibilities. An important component is to boost the ability to provide courses online.
"We think remote education will become more of the norm, particularly in metropolitan urban areas where transportation is challenged," he said. At the same time, administrators like Rosenberg are "very worried about the digital divide."
Latinos have been lagging behind most other ethnic and racial groups in terms of gaining reliable internet access and having broadband at home because the Hispanic population is largely gaining internet access through smartphones. In fact, 80 percent of Latinos access the internet through their smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center.
In El Paso Community College, "online learning was already the fastest growing segment of our enrollment." In fact, 93 percent of the students were supplementing their schedules with online learning, Serrata said.
What the pandemic did, he said, was shift online learning from a supplemental thing to the main form of teaching; for the most part, summer school will be mostly online in El Paso.
"But for the fall, we're looking at a hybrid approach," Serrata said, outlining plans to stagger students' classroom schedules to minimize crowds while practicing physical distancing and supplementing additional instruction with online learning.
Administrators at HSIs are also looking at ways to reduce the costs for students.
At California State University Channel Islands' Z-Majors program, students getting degrees in communications, early childhood studies and other disciplines don't have to spend money on textbooks.
"One of the significant costs to a college education are textbook materials," said Beck, so teachers are replacing the use of traditional books with resources such as library materials, government reports, online courseware and open-access journals.
"And in this scenario of moving so quickly into a wholly virtual environment, it's likely we're going to accelerate that," she said.
California State University Channel Islands, El Paso Community College and Florida International University are among nine institutions around the country that received the inaugural “Seal of Excelencia,” awarded by the nonprofit to those who have demonstrated results in enrolling, retaining and graduating Latino students.
Amid the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, Excelencia in Education co-founder Sarita Brown described the colleges as institutions which "are ready to take on the challenge of transforming their institutions and higher education itself " as the country navigates a transition in higher education "as none of us has ever seen before."
Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.