Illinois can do more to break down the barriers that keep Latino students from graduating

Graduation is the culmination of many years of hard work and overcoming challenges. But for many Latino students in Illinois, their start is also a celebration of defying the odds and achieving their goals.

A series of errors and glitches with this year’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will likely harm an entire generation of students hoping to attend college this fall. While these issues have been updated, these challenges will have a disproportionate impact on the decision-making and college enrollment of Latino students, who are often the first in their families to attend college, are low-income, and whose parents may be undocumented .

According to the National College Attainment Network, Illinois ranks third in the nation as of mid-May, with 52% of high school students filing the FAFSA. This reflects the fantastic efforts of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), high school counselors and post-secondary staff across Illinois, and some universities who have extended their intent to enroll until June 1.

While FAFSA issues have improved, this is deeply concerning given that only 20% of Illinois Latinos ages 25 to 64 have earned a bachelor’s degree, the lowest rate among all racial and ethnic groups. This is an issue that affects not just Latinos, but all of Illinois. Between 2010 and 2020, the LIllinois’ Latino population grew from 2 million to 2.3 million. In other words, in a knowledge economy, this steadily growing part of the population does not have the necessary support to acquire the means – higher education – to participate in the labor market.

For the class of 2021, only 50% of Latino high school graduates in Illinois enrolled in college.

However, among Latinos who attend college, many do not graduate. According to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, Latino college completion rates in 2018 were 25% for community colleges, 51% for public universities, 59% for private nonprofit colleges and 32% for private for-profit colleges.

To better understand the educational attainment of Latinos—and to lay the foundation for future advocacy to increase college access and completion—the Latino Policy Forum partnered with the Illinois Workforce and Education Research Collaborative and with the Illinois Latino College Landscape Study. In our report, published in 2023, we identified several critical factors leading to graduation, such as academic preparation, counseling and financial aid.

Money, academics and language barriers can be solved

But we also heard directly from Latino students and graduates, many of whom shared that affordability was a major obstacle: “I worked almost full-time in college at a retail job to help my family back home financially. I could have used this time to work on my own educational goals.”

Others shared that they felt unprepared for college, saying that once they enrolled in college, they “realized (that they were) ill-equipped to tackle college-level courses… (and) felt that (they) were always catching up. ”

Another student mentioned the language barrier for their parents as a challenge, saying, “I remember my school had one workshop where parents could come in if they had questions, but it wasn’t bilingual. (…) It is clear that the language barrier . . . made a big impression on us.”

These are challenges we can solve. We encourage state leaders to increase investments in our public institutions of higher education to increase college affordability, urge high school districts to increase academic preparation for Latinos, including increased access to rigorous coursework, and call on colleges to increase support for students and families, including providing information in multiple languages ​​and transition programs that help students better participate in college.

Addressing the challenges Latino students face in obtaining a college degree will lead to more students, of all races and ethnicities, reaching their graduation day. As Latino graduates walk across the stage, in front of their families, friends, professors and colleagues, it will be a celebration of a hard-earned achievement, but also of the village that helped make it possible.

Jennifer Juárez, Ph.D., is director of higher education policy at the Latino Policy Foruma nonprofit organization that advocates for Latino equality in education, housing and immigration in Illinois.

Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, Ph.D., is vice president of education policy and research at the Latino Policy Forum.

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