When a Choice Isn’t a Choice: Latinas and Student Debt

September 30, 2020
By Leticia Tomas Bustillos, AAUW Action Fund Federal Policy Manager

Image of graduation cap and stack of money on top of a diploma.

“Some months we had to choose which utilities or bills to pay as we could not afford to pay all our monthly bills because of our student debt.” Latinas are drowning in student debt. And they are scared.

Across the United States, 45 million Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. Latinas are attending college in record numbers and attaining Associate and Bachelor degrees at substantially higher rates than a decade ago. Of those who are attending college, roughly half are first generation. In many cases this translates to accruing more debt than students with a familial history of college attendance and a higher likelihood of leaving college without a degree. As such, Latinas are forced to rely heavily on student loans to finance their college aspirations. Research shows that the mean total borrowed by Latinas is $27,000.

AAUW Action Fund Fact Sheet: 2020 Presidential Candidates on Student Debt

Achieving a college degree is an aspiration held dear within the Latino community – it is both the pathway to opportunity and the means by which we honor the sacrifices made by our parents, many of whom came to this country in search of a better life. Yet for Jocelyn, Nyssa, and Jessica, this dream achieved has become a nightmare deferred with the student debt they accrued along the way. Two of the three women are the first in their families to go to college. Collectively they owe $174,000, not including the student debt of their spouses or the debt assumed by their parents to help them pay for college.

Jocelyn’s mother immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1980s when she was in her early 20s, settling in Maryland looking for a better life for herself and the ability to help her family back home. When it came to education, Jocelyn’s mother made it a priority for her daughters. “She always pushed my sister and I to do well in school and to finish up high school, as she was only able to complete middle school.” She did as her mother encouraged, attended a community college and a private college in pursuit of a degree in event planning. But the costs of college and her personal living expenses meant that she had to work while attending school and still had to take out $60,000 in student loans for a degree she is still trying to complete. Jocelyn is married and has a young son and has “chosen” to stay home. She said, “I am currently a stay-at-home mom but before I was an administrator for an orthodontist. Not my dream job but it paid the bills. I have always wanted to work in the hospitality industry specifically event planning, but Washington D.C can be extremely competitive. I decided to stay-at-home as I would be losing money if I worked and had to take my son to daycare, so the best option was to stay at home and be extremely frugal with food and necessities.”

Nyssa is the first in her family to attend and complete both her Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees. Living in California with her parents, she attended a community college part-time and worked throughout. And though it took her six years to complete and earn her Associate’s degree, she did so without accumulating any debt to finance her education. When she transferred to a California State University, she knew she could no longer afford to pay out of pocket as she did throughout her community college experience, and took out loans to finance the remaining two years it took for her to earn her Bachelor’s degree. Though she had a full-time job while she attended school, and was able to pay out of pocket for her summer classes, the higher cost of a four-year university would have been much more difficult to pay with her limited income. She shared, “When I decided to go to college I came to terms with the fact that I would have to borrow money and pay it back someday because I did not qualify for grants or receive any scholarships. I still proceeded to go because I wanted to be the first to graduate college in my family, even though I knew we could not afford it. I am now dealing with paying back my loans and it is unfortunately a large portion of my debt.” Though Nyssa owes less than $20,000 in student debt, her monthly payments nonetheless account for approximately 30% of her disposable income. She too has “chosen” to stay home and care for her children because to do otherwise would have been significantly more expensive.

Jessica grew up in Texas in a single family home, living with her mother and grandmother, who was a factory worker. Her mother pursued a college degree later in her life and eventually became a Director for Special Education in a local school district. When it was time for Jessica to attend college, her mother was still paying back the substantial loans she had amassed and had to figure out how to pay for two college degrees on one income. One of her solutions was the use of credit cards. “I grew up with not a lot of money,” Jessica said. “Unfortunately, I think my mom tried to pay those loans with credit cards so we have a lot of credit card debt as well. So, by the time she started earning a ‘good’ salary we were already in a lot of debt and have always been playing catch up.” Jessica enrolled and graduated from the University of Texas with a Bachelor’s degree and attended winter sessions and summer school at a local community college. Today she owes over $100,000 dollars not including the PLUS loans her mom took out to help defray costs. Today she works at a nonprofit in one of the most expensive cities in the country and approximately 30-40% of her total debt is student loan debt as she pays for the loans in her name and sends money to her mother to help with her expenses. Though she has not fallen into delinquency, she has admitted to the difficult “choice” of not making certain credit card payments in order to make other payments.

Jocelyn, Nyssa, and Jessica have done as they aspired to do: go to college and achieve a college degree. But on the other side of this dream is the stress of paying back a debt that is insurmountable and only exacerbated by the pandemic. The experiences of these three women exemplify what countless college students, recent graduates, and older adults who returned to school after the 2008 recession have had to do in the face of rising tuition costs, increased living expenses, and decreased state investments in postsecondary education. Disproportionately impacted have been communities of color, notably women who today hold two-thirds of all student debt. Policymakers have proposed countless suggestions to address this crisis, including recent calls for debt cancellation which will have the dual benefit of lessening the burden of cash-strapped borrowers and contributing as much as $108 billion to the economy per year. Debt cancellation for Jocelyn would mean that she could finish her degree and perhaps consider buying a home. Nyssa would likewise consider buying a home or invest the money for a rainy day. Jessica would be able to replenish the wages she lost due to COVID reductions, pay down her mom’s PLUS loans, and potentially even go to law school.

Going to college should not leave Latinas with these impossible choices. Until deliberate, more intentional action is taken, these choices will no longer be the exception but the norm. And that is no choice at all.

For more direct analysis on these issues, click here for the AAUW Action Fund Fact Sheet: 2020 Presidential Candidates on Student Debt.