Latinx Graduates and the Burden of Student Loans
The graduates I interviewed attended three different colleges in California: a private liberal arts college, a public research university, and a regional public university. Most are children of Mexican immigrants and are the first in their families to attend college. In 2018 and 2019, the impact of student loans on her was clear. Paybacks took a toll on her emotional well-being and limited her life choices. Over half helped their parents financially, either by giving them money directly or by living with their parents and paying rent and mortgages. Such support is common among Latinx immigrant families, adding to the burden of student loans.
Deidra, for example, was 27 and living with her immigrant parents and two adult siblings when I spoke to her in 2018. During her time as a counselor, most of her income went toward paying off loans and helping her parents pay off debts they incurred for her and her sister’s education. Financial stress took its toll: Deidra cried as she discussed her debts and shared that she was delaying marriage and having children.
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The Pandemic and the Pause
Then, in 2020, the coronavirus struck — and it hit Latinx communities especially hard. Latinx people were more likely than any other ethnic group to work jobs that are considered “essential.” They were more likely than whites to get sick, have trouble accessing medical care, and die from the virus.
For the interlocutors I caught up with in 2022, 80 percent of whom had student loans, the repayment pause was welcome news. Deidra recently married and plans to have children soon. Finally she and her husband could marry and save for a house.
Melinda, also the child of Mexican immigrants, has a masters in counseling and is expecting her first child. She’s not yet entitled to paid maternity leave from her employer, so the payback break has eased some of her fear of “all the costs” related to maternity.
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Like many Americans, these graduates grew up realizing that college was the key to success. As immigrants and immigrant children, they tried to make this dream come true for themselves and their parents. A decade after graduating, however, they are more critical.
Carlos grew up poor and is the first in his family to go to college. He recalls being told, “If you go to school, you’ll get out of here.” But after earning two degrees, including a Masters of Social Work from a prestigious private university, he says, “I still feel like that I haven’t really strayed too far from my social class, which is what we all want to do. … I’m kind of in the same place.” Even with the repayment pause, he says, “I feel very relieved when I have the opportunity to repay something … But that’s something I’ll never do.”
Karla took out most of her loans to pursue a Masters in Industrial Engineering. Today she lives with her partner, two adult siblings, her mother and parents-in-law in a single-family house. She notes, “In my opinion, there’s no point in paying all that interest on student loans and continuing to pay them for years … You essentially paid back everything you borrowed; You still have nearly double the interest payments.”
Karla adds that debates about who “deserves” a loan write-off are “really hard to hear” when they don’t take into account race, ethnicity and generational class privileges. When people say, “Well, you could have chosen another college that was cheaper,” she explains, “you don’t understand what it’s like to be a first-generation Latina and have to choose a college. It’s not just, ‘Oh, it’s the cheapest.’ It’s, ‘Do you have any support from the staff? Is there diversity?’ … There are so many things … that influence our decisions about which college we go to.”
The question of who needs to borrow at all is anything but neutral. Seventy-two percent of Latinx students finish four-year undergraduate programs in debt, compared to 66 percent of white students.
Credit forgiveness would allow these graduates to pursue basic goals shared by many: make ends meet, start families, save for retirement, and start saving to buy a home. What sets their stories apart is the impact of student loan debt across generations. Latinx children of immigrants are more likely to live in multigenerational homes and financially support their parents than other racial and ethnic groups. Forgiveness does not only benefit the borrower; it benefits their children and their parents.
As sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it, “The people making the rules haven’t spoken directly to the American people about what college debt would actually cost, how it would work, and what it would mean for economic mobility. “
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Daisy Verduzco Reyes (@direyes29) is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California Merced and author of “Learning to be Latino: How colleges shape identity politics(Rutgers University Press, 2018).