Does Debt Discriminate Against Latinos?

On May 18, both the Chronicle of Higher Education (here) and Inside Higher Ed (here) discussed a new report from the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education arguing that student debt has a disparate impact on Latinos.

“Relative to other students in their graduating classes,” the Chronicle summarizes,

Latino students with high debt were 17 percent less likely than students with no debt to enroll in graduate or professional school…. And even low debt hinders graduate enrollment: The report says Latino students with low debt were 14 percent less likely than those with no debt to pursue graduate or professional studies. The report suggests that the negative relationship between undergraduate debt and graduate enrollment appears to be greater for Latino students than for other ethnic groups.

USC’s description of its new report notes that the National Academies recently issued a report (no doubt this one) urging a short term goal of doubling the participation of minorities in STEM fields and a long term goal of “tripling and quadrupling their enrollment,” and it argues that the discriminatory burden of debt on Latinos “is not just a matter of fairness and social equity, but of workforce need.” Given those hyperbolically high stakes, the USC report’s recommendations are glaringly lame. They include such palliatives as enlarging the Pell grant program, keeping interest rates low, creating a STEM-focused work-study program, exploring the potential of Individual Development Accounts, monitoring “the use of Title V HSI-STEM funds to ensure they’re promoting Latino student preparation” (HSIs are Hispanic Serving Institutions), and a suggestion “to disaggregate analysis student loan debt by race and ethnicity to monitor borrowing in federal subsidized loan programs.”

These paltry efforts are unlikely to open the spigots and increase the current trickle of Latinos into STEM fields into a flow. If the nation really requires more Latino STEM workers (as opposed simply to more STEM workers of whatever hue or ethnicity) and the disparate impact of debt on Latinos really is both unfair and socially inequitable, why not follow what passes for the logic of current civil rights policy and boldly propose solutions targeted precisely at the dearth of Latinos in STEM?

Possibilities might include:

  • Lowering requirements for Pell Grants, loans, etc., to Latinos;

  • Lowering the interest rate on student loans to Latinos;

  • Forgiving obligation to repay loans to Latinos who remain in STEM occupation for x years (or even months);

  • “Latino Finders Fee” grants to STEM departments pegged to the number of Latino majors they have, the number of Latino graduate students they admit, and the number of Latino degrees they grant.

These are just suggestions. I’m sure the deep benches of university vice presidents, deans, offices, etc., of diversity, inclusion, equity, fairness, affirmative action, etc., will be able to think of many others.

True, some Tea Partiers and other right wing extremists might criticize borrowing yet more money from the Chinese to finance these programs. And, speaking of Chinese, some Asian Americans and their white allies (and perhaps even a few blacks) will no doubt complain about the basic unfairness of bestowing favors on one preferred ethnic group. But since these malcontents say the same things about all affirmative programs there’s no need to pay any more attention to their predictable criticisms of this one.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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