Thursday, February 01, 2007

Latino Students Forego Financial Aid for College

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times ran an interesting story on the propensity of Latino students to finance their college educations through work rather than loans, even when the practice slows down progress toward educational goals. Here's the introduction:

Luis Fernandez, who will graduate in May from Cal State Fullerton, put himself through college and has a stack of receipts to prove it. He paid for his education, all $12,800 of it, in cash.

"My parents have always said, 'If you don't have the money to pay for it, then work for it,' " Fernandez said.

So he did. Fernandez, 24, who came from Mexico with his parents when he was 8, worked at a Westminster drugstore and wrote personal checks to cover his college fees. He decided not to take out student loans.

Although the pay-as-you-go method worked for Fernandez, one of his teachers, Chicano studies professor Alexandro Gradilla, has seen many Latinos drop out or take extra years to graduate because they won't finance their education the way most college students do: with a combination of work, grants and loans....

Educators and financial aid experts said the cultural aversion to loans — considered a sign of a strong work ethic — is common among Latino immigrants and their children. And it creates an odd dilemma in academia.

Financial aid experts worry that students who rely heavily on loans are taking on too much personal debt to pay for college, but educators are trying to convince Latinos that school loans, if used wisely, can lead to high-paying jobs later.

While aversion to student loans is a cultural phenomenon, the article cites specific reasons for low levels of Latino borrowing: little knowledge about financial aid programs, fear of debt, and distrust of lending institutions.
I have mixed feelings about this issue. It's an admirable thing for Hispanic students to work their way through school. I did it myself, working full time as an undergraduate, doing without loans. I even held a part-time job off campus during my first year of graduate school (augmented by a student loans to pay tuition and bills), before I qualified for a full fellowship from the university starting my second year.

But the similarities stop there. My educational background varies greatly from the average Hispanic student. According to Abigail Thernstrom and Stephen Thernstrom, in their book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, Hispanics have high rates of college dropout, and among Mexican-Americans, limited levels of English proficiency hinder the educational attainment of these students. Culturally, family emphasis on work over school means not just a refusal of finanical aid borrowing, but the rejection of college completion altogether. No Excuses quotes the Mexican-American father of an East Los Angeles College student as saying, "You ought to be embarrased. Twenty-three years old and without a job." The son dropped out of school to follow his father's vocational footsteps to become a welder. The Thernstrom's note that there's little more than anecdotal evidence to draw broader conclusions about this cultural attribute, though they argue, in comparison to high achieving Asian-American students, "there is much evidence that suggests the culture that Asian immigrants bring with them is very strongly oriented toward academic excellence, while that of Mexicans -- like the Italians before them -- is not."

At community college, where I teach, most students hold jobs while completing their studies. I know from first hand experience working with disadvantaged students that time at work takes away from academic progress (since most students don't have the life skills to successful navigate both a heavy employment load and their studies). In the case of Hispanics in particular, perhaps outreach and public relations efforts by lending institutions and Hispanic interest groups (some of which are mentioned in the Times piece) will work to shift the culture a bit toward greater acceptance of student loans, thus facilitating enhanced educational success.

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