'I Don't Like Owing Anybody Money': Why Latino Students Avoid College Loans
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Andres Mendoza leaves work an hour early so he can get home in time for his online classes.
When he gets home, he lets his wiener dog Draco outside, then logs onto Blackboard to get his latest assignments.
“It's only technically nine questions, but it's really probably about 40 questions,” Mendoza said, looking over his accounting assignment on a recent Tuesday afternoon. “This actually doesn't look too bad. I might not be doing homework all night today. Okay, this isn't that bad. That's a relief.”
Mendoza is 25 and a junior at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He works full time and goes to college part time so he can support himself without going into debt.
Like many Latino college students in San Antonio, Mendoza is wary of student loans.
“I've never liked to owe anybody money, regardless if it's $5.50. I don't like owing anybody money, so having to owe the government money is even worse,” he said.
San Antonio’s Black and Latino college students are significantly more likely to avoid taking out student loans because they’re afraid they won’t be able to pay them back.
In a survey Texas Public Radio sent to students currently or recently enrolled in one of San Antonio’s public institutions of higher education, Hispanic students were just as likely as white students to take out loans. But the reasons they didn’t take out loans varied depending on their race and ethnicity.
A little more than half of the Black and Latino survey respondents said they didn’t take out loans because they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to pay them back. However, only 34% of white respondents expressed the same fear. That’s compared to 72% of white students who said they could get by without loans.
According to college finance expert Sandy Baum with the Urban Institute, avoiding student loans when you have a hard time paying for college without it can reduce a student’s chances of graduating.
“Even though the public discourse is very much about how borrowing too much can be a problem, there is some pretty strong evidence that not borrowing enough can also be a problem,” Baum said. “The issue is pretty straightforward: if you take a loan instead of working the extra hours to get that money, then you have more time to devote to your studies.”
Mendoza originally planned to go to Texas State University after high school, but he didn’t receive enough financial aid. Like a lot of middle income families, his parents made too much money for him to qualify for the Pell Grant, but not enough to be able to afford tuition, room and board without loans.
“I mean, they could have paid for it, but my circumstances were a little bit difficult. My senior year, my grandpa had actually passed away on like, the first day of my senior year. And then, unexpectedly, my uncle — who was supposed to take care of everybody over there, he passed away from pancreatic cancer,” Mendoza said. “My parents being the good people that they are, forked over a lot of money to help with the funeral expenses, so I didn't want to throw another big lump sum of money at them.”
Instead, Mendoza opted to stay in Corpus Christi and go to the local community college, Del Mar.
“My parents were happy to pay for me to go to community college, because it was significantly cheaper,” Mendoza said. “We made it out with no debt or anything like that, and it was a blessing in disguise, honestly.”
Now that he’s older, Mendoza is eligible for some need-based financial aid because he files independently from his parents, but it doesn’t cover everything. He charges the occasional textbook to a credit card, and works full time to cover his living expenses without taking out student loans.
Other Debt Burdens
Mendoza is one of several Hispanic survey respondents interviewed by TPR who has other kinds of debt even though he avoids student loans. He has car payments; another student has business loans.
Erica McDonald is working to pay off credit card debt.
“I wish that was something that they (would) teach us like in high school, about APR and credit cards and things like that, because I probably would never have taken out a credit card when I was 18,” said McDonald. “My mom just told us never to take out loans.”
McDonald is 30 and married with two young children. She stays home with her kids and takes online classes at San Antonio College while her husband works.
“People send me stuff for student loans, (but) I don't want to do that,” McDonald said. “I would worry about it, and since I'm not working, having to ask my husband, ‘Hey, can you help me pay the student loan?’ No, it would just bother me. So that's why I tried really, really hard to make sure that I had really good grades to qualify for financial aid.”
She decided to go back to college last fall, 10 years after she dropped out.
“This is the first year that I've even really been driven to really go to school, like I was like, ‘Alright, let's do it.’ And I did it during the most stressful time of America, when everyone was adjusting to the pandemic,” McDonald said. “I wanted to be able to have a purpose (beyond staying home with the kids).”
McDonald wants to open a vegetarian food truck, but she felt like she needed to know more about running a business first.
Her first semester back, she hadn’t been approved for financial aid yet. She enrolled in two classes while she waited for her Pell grant to kick in.
“That's all I could afford at the time. I would have taken more if I had had the money to spend,” McDonald said. “My husband put things on credit cards, just so I could go to school. He really did a lot just so to make sure I could start school.”
They added the $800 tuition fee to the credit card balance they’re trying to pay off, even though it has a high interest rate. McDonald said they hope to be able to pay it off when they get their tax returns.
“Hopefully we'll be able to just pay that one off, because that's the one that hurts us the most,” she said.
Her experience with credit card debt makes her more determined to avoid student loans.
That’s a common reaction for Black and Latino students, according to Vanessa Sansone. She’s an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio who researches inequities in access to college.
“It goes back to understanding how to navigate higher education,” said Sansone, who grew up in a lower income family on San Antonio’s East Side. “Usually loans in the context of our community are focused on like a payday lender, these predatory loans.”
“It's pretty traumatic when you have somebody who's trying to repossess your car because you couldn't pay your note,” Sansone said. “Even though one could say, 'But a student loan is a good investment and you can always pay that back once you get your job,’ (Black and Brown students) have this context of what a loan is, and how it has consistently harmed their families and their communities. The way that they're making decisions about things is going to be completely different than a white student.”
“Data consistently shows that Black and Brown communities have been targeted for predatory loans in all different industries,” Sansone said.
Lower-income Latinos that responded to TPR's survey were less likely to take out student loans than white students in the same income brackets.
Less than 40% of Latino respondents with a family income of less than $35,000 took out student loans, compared to almost 60% of white students with less than $35,000. Black respondents with lower family incomes were also less likely to take out loans.
San Antonio’s Black and Latino college students are also significantly more likely to be from low-income families, giving them fewer resources to fall back on during tough times.
More than half of the Black and Latino survey respondents had a family income of less than $50,000, compared to less than one-third of white respondents.
San Antonio College student Francisco Hernandez said that’s part of the reason he’s avoided student loans.
“Growing up in a low-income family I have seen my family all suffer debt,” Hernandez said. “They had to work multiple jobs just to be able to pay off one loan when they had multiple other loans taken out in their name.”
Hernandez is 22 and finishing his final semester at the community college. He wants to work for a river authority or some other organization involved in water resources after he finishes his bachelor’s degree.
After seeing his family struggle with loans, he said he would be constantly worried if he took out student loans. He grew up in Brownsville and moved to San Antonio when he was 18.
“After college, I want my time to be my time,” Hernandez said. “(I don’t want to have to) stress my mind and my body to work more than one job just to be able to pay (them) back.”
He works full time at a call center while going to school full time. He also takes on odd jobs whenever he can, doing manual labor and teaching coding and piano.
The Pell grant completely covers his tuition plus some living expenses at San Antonio College, but he’s trying to save up money so that he doesn’t have to work during his first semester at Texas State University. He has enough grants and scholarships to pay for tuition at Texas State, but he’ll need to work or use his savings to cover his living expenses without taking out loans.
“I already looked at the syllabus for my classes, and just reading into them, it gets me excited for my major. But they don't look like my typical ‘do the assignment and you'll pass’ type of class. It definitely looks like I'll have to do the work for it,” Hernandez said.
Some Latino students also don’t have access to federally subsidized loans, which have greater protection for borrowers than other student loans. Undocumented students, including DACA recipients, aren’t eligible for federal financial aid of any type, including Pell grants and loans.
Xochitl Bynum was born in Monterrey, Mexico and moved to San Antonio when she was 11. She tried to go to college in 2007, but had to drop out because she couldn’t get any financial aid.
“I was not able to complete my studies, because I didn't have any legal status here,” Bynum said. “I was not able to have any scholarships, I was not able to enroll in an actual university at the time, because I didn't have a social security number.”
She became a U.S. citizen after she married, and earned two associate’s degrees in four years. Now 33 and a single mom, Bynum is studying to become an English as a Second Language teacher at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
According to the U.S. Census, less than 15% of San Antonio’s population are foreign born. About 12% of TPR’s survey respondents were immigrants; and 90% of Latino respondents were born in the U.S.
National Research on Latino Debt Aversion
A recent national survey of students who dropped out of college also found that Latinos are wary of student loans. The 2020 report produced by the University of North Carolina and the civil rights organization Unidos US asked survey respondents if they avoided loans and if they left college in part because they didn’t want to take on more debt.
They found that Latino students were more likely than non-Latino students to avoid debt, and that avoiding student loans was part of the reason they left college without earning a degree. However, the biggest barriers for Latino students were transportation and the cost of college.
“Higher education in this nation isn’t really working for Latino students,” said Amanda Martinez of Unidos US. “There’s definitely a gap of knowledge, a gap of understanding of the community, of their needs and what makes them successful.”
The report authors said that to truly improve equity, policies at the federal and state level need to change to make college more affordable and financial aid more accessible.
According to Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute, the research is clear: students are more likely to graduate when their parents pay for college or they have enough grants to cover all of their expenses.
“The evidence about loans is more complicated, because if the loans are replacing grants, you're better off having grants,” Baum said. “However, there is evidence that having the loans and having that cash can help you to succeed. And it's really being short of cash that is the biggest problem and interfering with a student's ability to succeed academically.”
Even though the UNC / Unidos US researchers found that part of the reason Latinos dropped out of college was because they didn’t want to take on more debt, report co-author Kate Sablosky Elengold said the solution isn’t to simply encourage Hispanic students to take on more debt.
“There are rational, logical reasons for Latino students, or really any student, to be averse to education debt. College is really expensive. There are predatory institutions, there are predatory lenders,” said Sablosky Elengold, an assistant professor of law at UNC. “Just asking students to take on more debt and to take more of the risk and burden onto themselves is not going to level the playing field.”
Sablosky Elengold and one of her co-authors, Jess Dorrance, said employment discrimination and inequities in the labor market are also a contributing factor. Black and Latino Americans have a higher unemployment rate than white Americans.
Dorrance said Latino students might feel like a loan is too risky because they’re not confident they’ll find a good job after they graduate.
UTSA student Andres Mendoza feels that way. He changed his major because he was worried he’d have a hard time working his way up the career ladder as a person of color.
When he started community college, he wanted to become a sports broadcaster and work for ESPN, but he noticed there were very few Latinos in primetime spots. Now he’s studying business and dreams of working for the front office of a professional sports team.
“People that are in charge of hiring at big corporations and whatnot … most of the people are white,” Mendoza said. “Since we're people of color, we have to get a college degree and we have to go above and beyond to make an impact, to get a job somewhere, to do anything.”
He sees the cost of college as just one more barrier he has to get passed in order to succeed.
“To me loans are just not fair. I think that college should be funded for everybody, especially if they expect us to go and especially if the whole bar is set that you have to have a college degree to be successful,” Mendoza said. “Why do they expect us to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for this to happen?”
This is the second in a series of stories based on TPR's survey on college access. Each story explores characteristics of the college experience for San Antonio’s Black and Latino students. The survey was made possible through a fellowship with the Education Writers Association and was administered by the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University-College Station.
Editor’s note: TPR consulted STATS Sense About Science, USA Director Rebecca Goldin to determine the best way to measure the statistical significance of survey findings. Due to the multiple questions included in the survey, no conclusions about the general student population were made in TPR’s reporting unless the p value was less than .0005. The survey instrument, anonymous survey response data and other statistical information is available for independent analysis here.
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