How student loan debt affects the lives of Latino millennials

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As of March 2020, federal student loan repayments are on pause. With that pause scheduled to end on August 31, many borrowers are eagerly waiting to see if President Biden will offer student loan forgiveness, as promised during his campaign.

How has the break affected the lives of millennials?

Over the past 14 years, I have followed a cohort of 60 Latinx millennials, most children of immigrants and child arrivals, who were students in 2008. Most took out student loans. More recently, I interviewed many of them in 2018-19, before the student loan repayment break, and again from April to July, as the break was set to expire. I found that for those in debt, the break not only helped them make ends meet during the pandemic – it also allowed them to support parents and other loved ones, pay off consumer debt , host weddings, plan families, and start saving for home ownership.

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 the first in their families to attend college. In 2018 and 2019, the impact of student loans on them was clear. Reimbursements weighed on their emotional well-being and limited their life choices. More than half were help parents financially, either by giving them money directly or by living with their parents and covering rent and mortgages. Such help is common among Latinx immigrant families, further 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. (Note: All names used here are pseudonyms in accordance with the study’s privacy safeguards. ) Although she was working full-time as a counselor, most of her income was spent paying off loans and helping her parents pay off debt accumulated for her own and her sister’s education. Financial stress was taking its toll: Deidra cried over her debt and shared that she was delaying marriage and having children.

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The pandemic and the break

Then in 2020, the coronavirus hit — and it hit Latinx communities especially hard. Latinx people were more likely than any other ethnic and racial group to hold high-profile jobs “essential.” They were more likely than whites get sickhave difficulty accessing care and die from the virus.

For the respondents I met in 2022, 80% of whom had student loan balances, the repayment pause was good news. Deidra recently got married and plans to have children soon. She and her husband were finally able to get married and start saving for a house.

Melinda, also a child of Mexican immigrants, has a master’s degree in counseling and is expecting her first child. She is not yet entitled to paid maternity leave through her employer, so the pause in reimbursements has eased some of her anxiety about “all the expenses” associated with motherhood.

Who should pay for college? This is what Americans believe.

Like many Americans, these graduates grew up hearing that college was the key to success. As immigrants and immigrant children, they sought to fulfill this dream for themselves and their parents. A decade after graduating, however, they have a more critical perspective.

Carlos grew up in poverty and is the first in his family to go to university. He remembers being told that “when you go to school, you will get out of here”. But after two degrees, including a master’s degree in social work from a prestigious private university, he says, “I still feel like I haven’t really strayed from my social class, which is what we all want to do. … I’m kind of in the same place. Even with the repayment break, he says, “I feel a lot of relief every time I have a chance to pay something back… But that’s something I’ll never do.”

Karla took out most of her loans to get a master’s degree in industrial engineering. She now lives in a single family home with her partner, two adult siblings, her mother and a brother-in-law. She observes, “It makes no sense, in my mind, to pay all this interest on student loans and keep paying it for years… You’ve basically paid off everything you’ve borrowed; you still have almost double the amount of interest payments.

Karla adds that debates over who “deserves” loan forgiveness are “really hard to hear” when they disregard race, ethnicity and generational class privilege. When people say, “Well, you could have chosen a different, cheaper college,” she explains, “you don’t understand what it’s like to be a first-generation Latina and have to choose which university to go to. It’s not just, ‘Oh, it’s the cheapest.’ It’s: ‘Do you have the support of the staff? Is there diversity? ‘…There are so many things…that inform our decision on which college to go to.

The question of who should take out loans first is far from neutral. Seventy-two percent of Latinx students finish four-year undergraduate programs with debt, compared to 66% of white students.

Loan forgiveness would allow these graduates to pursue basic goals shared by many: to make ends meet, start a family, save for retirement, and start saving to buy a home. What sets their stories apart is the impact of student debt on multiple generations. Latinx children of immigrants are more likely to live in multigenerational homes and more likely to financially support their parents compared to other racial and ethnic groups. Forgiveness does not only benefit the borrower; it benefits their children and their parents.

As a sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom says it, “The people who made the rules didn’t speak directly with the American people about what college debt would really cost, how it would work, and what it would mean for economic mobility.

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Marguerite 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).

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