Report examines drawbacks of debt by Latino STEM students
Controlling undergraduate debt through financial aid policy can increase the number of Latino students who become scientists, engineers and mathematicians by enabling them to continue to invest in their education beyond a bachelor’s degree, according to a new report by the USC Rossier School of Education’s Center for Urban Education (CUE).
Underrepresented students, particularly Latinos, borrow at higher rates to pay for undergraduate degrees, which limits their ability to invest in graduate and professional schools.
“With growing attention to student loan debt, this is the opportune time for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to consider innovative ways for the federal government to support student investments in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] degrees by providing a more balanced package of loans, grants, work study aid and community or business sector support,” said Associate Professor Alicia Dowd, co-director of CUE and co-author of the report.
“Reducing Undergraduate Debt to Increase Latina and Latino Participation in STEM Professions” examines the borrowing patterns of undergraduate students and the relation of that debt to enrollment in graduate school. It shows that even low amounts of debt can have a negative impact on graduate enrollment.
Latino students with high debt, relative to others in their class, are 17 percent less likely than students without debt to go on to graduate or professional school. Those with low debt were nearly 14 percent less likely.
The National Academies recently issued a report calling for a short-term goal of doubling participation of African-Americans, Hispanics, Native-Americans and other racial-ethnic groups in STEM, with long-term goals that call for tripling and even quadrupling their enrollment. The CUE report makes it clear this increase is unlikely without addressing the issue of financing undergraduate education.
White and Asian STEM students take on some amount of debt at less selective institutions, and the proportion of borrowers decreases at very selective and highly selective schools. For Latino and African-American students, the type of institution is not as important. Overall, the students borrow at much higher rates than other racial-ethnic groups.
“We’ve seen some good news with the number of Latinos completing master’s and doctoral degrees, but this critical demographic is still severely underrepresented among all STEM master’s and doctoral degree recipients,” said Lindsey Malcom, assistant professor at George Washington University and co-author of the report. “Advanced degrees are typically required for entry into STEM professions and faculty positions, so these trends must improve.”
While increased undergraduate debt is a national concern because it can decrease the ability of recent graduates to function successfully in society, this report raises the issue that undergraduate debt is not just a quality of life concern for graduates — it may be having a negative impact on the nation’s workforce by limiting the number of students who advance to graduate school.
A prior report noted that increasing participation of Latino STEM students at all degree levels is more than a matter of fairness and social equity — it is a key factor for the workforce. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment in STEM occupations will increase by 21.3 percent from 2008 to 2018 — more than double the growth in other occupations. Latinos, the fastest-growing demographic group, are projected to make up 25 percent of the U.S. population in 2020.
Among the recommendations from the report:
• Continue to enlarge the federal Pell grant program.
• Reduce the risk of unmanageable debt by keeping interest rates steady at their current levels.
• Expand access to research assistantships, particularly at institutions that serve high numbers of Latinos, such as Hispanic Serving Institutions and community colleges.
• Create a STEM-focused work-study program.
• Explore the potential of Individual Development Accounts.
• Disaggregate analysis of student loan debt by race and ethnicity to monitor borrowing in federal subsidized loan programs.
The report, the fourth in a series, was supported through a research grant funded by the National Science Foundation.