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As coronavirus threatens Latino college enrollment, a university works to retain students

“I like to say that we were built for these times, even though they are profound and very difficult circumstances that we’re living in,” says an associate provost at the University of Texas.
Image: University of Texas El Paso
An aerial image of The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) campus on June 9, 2020.Ivan Pierre Aguirre / University of Texas at El Paso

Jessica Martinez spent her weekdays from mid-May through early August in front of a computer screen, tuning into an online law school preparation course for hours on end. She finished leftover assignments at night, then clocked in for 12-hour shifts on weekends as a pediatric home nurse during a pandemic.

“I definitely didn’t sleep very much,” says Martinez, a senior and the student government president at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). “And I did have to work to pay off my summer classes, so it’s not like I could have taken the time off.”

Nick Ortiz, a senior at UTEP’s College of Science and a senator in student government, says he even contemplated taking a break amid the pandemic, but the thought only lingered for a day or two thanks to a generous scholarship as well as support from his peers. One friend, however, still wrestles with whether to enroll for future semesters if their coursework remains online.

Science classes are difficult by their very nature, Ortiz said, “but when you go from in-person learning to online learning, they become exponentially harder.”

On top of adjusting to a completely different academic framework with remote learning, many Latino students across the country are facing a stark reality as their communities are disproportionately affected not only by Covid-19, but by the devastating economic downturn.

Image: Jessica Martinez
Jessica Martinez, a senior at UTEP, has managed to forge ahead academically. But she's well aware of the difficulties some of her classmates are facing as they also try to stay on track amid the coronavirus fallout.Courtesy of Jessica Martinez

Soon after the pandemic hit the U.S., almost two-thirds of Latino students reported dealing with insecurity around even their most basic needs, such as food and housing, according to a survey by Temple University's Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, a research group focused on the needs of college students.

Other surveys this summer by the polling firm Latino Decisions found 37 percent of Hispanics nationwide said their families were thinking about pumping the brakes on college attendance. In California, the state with the largest Hispanic population, a majority of Latinos with student debt were considering returning to school only part time or not at all, at least temporarily.

That potential exodus jeopardizes hard won gains in Latino college enrollment — up almost 150 percent since 2000 — and Latino college completion, which has been steadily increasing. Almost a quarter (24 percent) of Hispanic adults have at least an associate's degree, though there's still much-needed growth when that number compares to 46 percent of non-Latino whites.

With the coronavirus, even nationally recognized Hispanic-Serving Institutions such as UTEP — with a student body that’s roughly 80 percent Hispanic — saw some decline in enrollment. A cohort of first-year students and transfers from El Paso Community College (EPCC) decided against attending the four-year Texas university this year, when recent high school graduates accounted for almost all of the modest 1.2 percent decline in headcount enrollment compared to last fall.

Those unexpected gap years are bad news, warns Heather Wilson, UTEP’s president.

“I worry a lot about students who graduated in the spring of 2020 and what their long-term prospects are, if they don’t get into some kind of higher ed,” Wilson says.

Life-changing pay discrepancies increasingly divide high school graduates and college graduates, with college degrees acting as helpful economic buffers amid a tough economy.

Under normal conditions, El Paso, a border city, has fostered a “college-going culture,” with relatively easy access to higher education, Wilson said. The vast majority of students at the university come from El Paso County or are Mexican nationals, and both EPCC and UTEP rank high among Texas institutions awarding degrees to Hispanics.

Last year, around half of UTEP’s graduates were the first generation in their families to earn a college diploma, Wilson says, many of them with at least one credit from a local community college.

To fight the erosion of what has usually been a fortified high school to college pipeline, the university plans to intentionally reach out and re-recruit hundreds of people who completed their K-12 education earlier this year, who otherwise risk getting lost.

A changing college experience

When Patricia Nava, interim dean at UTEP’s college of engineering, taught an upper division course remotely over the summer, she prepared and recorded lectures in a void, without the same frame of reference to monitor whether the material made sense. Although both she and her teaching assistant held virtual office hours on separate platforms, “not a single person attended,” she says.

Absent a physical classroom or any form of face-to-face interaction, Nava’s course was still haunted by the outsize presence of the deadly virus. Two students contacted her before an exam, distracted after potential exposures and a weeks-long wait for Covid-19 test results sent them spiraling.

Image: Nick Ortiz
Nick Ortiz, a senior at UTEP, is glad he enrolled this fall despite reservations about remote learning. Courtesy of Nick Ortiz

One had a father-in-law who ended up hospitalized with the infection. The other lived with his mother, who had underlying health conditions, and was told to leave even after scheduling an appointment because the testing site had run out of kits.

El Paso County has had more than 34,000 coronavirus cases and hundreds of deaths. For the school's few courses with in-person components, some students have appealed to Nava, as dean, to help them find alternatives so they can avoid coming to campus and keep their families safe.

“The big names in higher education are making broad, sweeping statements about students wanting to be on campus and students wanting to have in-person classes,” Nava says. “That might be true at other institutions. It might be true in other geographical regions. But I find that our students are very much in favor of remote learning.”

Meeting urgent needs

Despite the pandemic's challenges, UTEP actually experienced a bump in retention this fall and boosted summer enrollment by a whopping 15 percent.

“I like to say that we were built for these times, even though they are profound and very difficult circumstances that we’re living in,” says Virginia Fraire, the school’s associate provost.

Administrators have scrambled to protect thousands of students from the fallout of the epidemic, approaching the unprecedented shift online with an assumption that their community is under-connected. When Ortiz’s outdated computer couldn’t accommodate virtual school, he received enough technological assistance from the university to cover three-quarters of a new device.

Without the aid, he says, “my game plan would have been to probably take out a loan or max out my credit card.”

UTEP has funneled $13.9 million in funding from the CARES Act directly into emergency assistance for students, including food and child care. It’s also allotted $2 million for initiatives such as virtual professional development workshops and an internship program subsidized by the university.

Even with those much-needed resources, the transition to remote learning hasn’t always been seamless.

Martinez misses seeing UTEP’s campus alive with learners, and now that all of her courses are on her own schedule instead of in real time, it’s easy to get sidetracked. But, she says, “I wasn’t going to let a pandemic stop me from achieving my dreams.”

Ortiz has also experienced the downsides of college life in 2020, including months of lost lab time. Even so, he's glad he enrolled.

“For those of you who are going through this hardship, just know that you’re not alone,” he said. “And that through working together, we can get through this and move forward.”

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