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Latino college enrollment in Nevada stagnated during the pandemic: What’s happening now?

A square sculpture with the letter N in the middle is located on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. It’s casting a shadow over a sidewalk in front of a brick building.
Jose Davila IV
KUNR Public Radio
Latino students made up just 23.7% of UNR’s undergraduate student body in Fall 2021.

Latino public college enrollment in Nevada dropped in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. While it bounced back a bit during the 2021-22 academic year, higher education professionals and students say more could be done to help Latino students get to and through college.

Matthew Gonzales owns a personal training business. After being diagnosed with an autoimmune condition during his freshman year of high school, he fell in love with fitness during the pandemic, which hit during his sophomore year of high school. He saw it as a way to keep himself healthy. He decided he wanted to do that for others, too.

An illustrated portrait of a young man. He is wearing a T-shirt and looking forward while smiling.
Lauren Ibañez for KUNR Public Radio
Matthew Gonzales owns a personal training business. He dropped out of UNR in Fall 2022 after less than one full semester.

But Gonzales is also a college dropout. He was the first person in his family to go to college. A gifted and talented student in the Washoe County School District, he did not find the University of Nevada, Reno’s support services for first-gen students helpful. Instead, he struggled with paying for tuition and requisite books and finding classes that applied to his future goals.

“Financially, I couldn’t afford school,” Gonzales said. “If you didn’t have the books, then you failed, because you needed the books to succeed in school, and so it was just money, on top of money, on top of money that my parents couldn’t provide, and that I couldn’t provide.”

After enrolling in August of 2022, he dropped out without even completing a semester. His story isn’t unique; most of the current and former students and higher education officials KUNR spoke to for this story identified financial concerns as a significant barrier for Latino students in Nevada.

Jaime Gonzalez came to UNR a little later in life. After graduating from Churchill County High School in Fallon in 2016, he worked at a steel mill and then Tesla before a mentor encouraged him to go to college. He enrolled at UNR and started living on campus in 2018.

An illustrated portrait of a young man. He is wearing a collared shirt and looking forward while smiling.
Lauren Ibañez for KUNR Public Radio
Jaime Gonzalez is a senior in public relations and marketing at UNR. He’s also the senator representing the Reynolds School of Journalism in student government.

But even with savings from those jobs, he kept multiple jobs in college to pay for it, including as a server at Olive Garden. But as tips dried up during the pandemic, he had to move back home to Fallon and commute to work and school at late hours.

Not only did his financial situation threaten his college career, it threatened his life.

“I fell asleep driving up from Fallon. I dozed off. A big rig honked the horn, I woke up and ended up swerving out into the median,” Gonzalez said. “And that was the first time I felt real panic and the situation that I didn’t know if what I was doing was possible.”

Gonzalez, now a senior in public relations and marketing, also said working those jobs also limited his ability to interact with campus resources that would’ve helped him navigate college and the stress that accompanies it.

Jerania Mancilla attends the College of Southern Nevada (CSN). She has been working towards an associate’s degree in early childhood education since she graduated from East Career and Technical Academy in Clark County School District in 2018.

An illustrated portrait of a young woman with long hair. She is wearing a sweater and looking forward while smiling.
Lauren Ibañez for KUNR Public Radio
Jerania Mancilla is an early childhood education student at CSN and an aide at Ronnow.

Like Jaime, she’s been working during college, mostly as an aide at C.C. Ronnow Elementary School in Las Vegas. Balancing that with her home life and financial reality has made getting the credits she needs for graduation harder.

“The most challenging part of college would be living in a Hispanic household, not being able to take as many classes because I have responsibilities at home,” Mancilla said.

She’s mostly only been able to take two or three classes at a time.

Each of their stories shows some of the barriers that existed, and still exist, for Latino students in Nevada and across the country as the pandemic hit.

COVID enrollment effects were asymmetrical across Nevada’s public colleges. In general, the four-year institutions fared better than the community colleges, mirroring a nationwide trend. CSN was one of those schools.

Nevada public college enrollment and graduation data from 2012-2021

Mobile users: Expand the sections below to view infographics of Nevada public college enrollment and graduation data. Swipe left-to-right to view all columns.

All Nevada

Alternative description for “All Nevada” infographic:

Across all institutions, total undergraduate enrollment grew unevenly from 95,487 in 2012 to 95,810 in 2021, peaking at 101,467 in 2019. However, the total graduation rate peaked at 50.93% in 2012, falling to 47.99% in 2021. Latino enrollment has grown from 19,966, or 20.91%, in 2012, to 31,612, or 32.99%, in 2021. However, the Latino graduation rate has fallen from 45.39% in 2012 to 43.44% in 2021, peaking at 46.98% in 2020.


Alternative description for “UNR” infographic:

At UNR, total undergraduate enrollment grew unevenly from 15,082 in 2012 to 17,025 in 2021, peaking at 18,348 in 2017. The total graduation rate grew from 53.6% in 2012 to a peak of 62.7% in 2021. Latino enrollment has grown from 2,193, or 14.54%, in 2012, to 4,035, or 23.7%, in 2021. The Latino graduation rate has grown from 44.2% in 2012 to 57.2% in 2021, peaking at 60.1% in 2020.


Alternative description for “UNLV” infographic:

At UNLV, total undergraduate enrollment grew unevenly from 22,429 in 2012 to 25,312 in 2021, peaking at 25,864 in 2020. The total graduation rate grew from 41.5% in 2012 to a peak of 47.2% in 2021. Latino enrollment has grown from 4,751, or 21.18%, in 2012, to 8,447, or 33.37%, in 2021. The Latino graduation rate has grown from 39.2% in 2012 to a peak of 45.2% in 2021.


Alternative description for “NSC” infographic:

At Nevada State, total undergraduate enrollment grew significantly from 3,389 in 2012 to 7,158 in 2021, peaking at 7,218 in 2020. The total graduation rate grew from 15.9% in 2012 to a peak of 28.5% in 2021. Latino enrollment has grown from 657, or 19.39%, in 2012, to 2,949, or 41.2%, in 2021. The Latino graduation rate has grown from 5.6% in 2012 to a peak of 27.1% in 2021.


Alternative description for “CSN” infographic:

At CSN, total undergraduate enrollment fell from 35,678 in 2012 to 29,942 in 2021, peaking at 35,943 in 2014. The total graduation rate grew from 9% in 2012 to a peak of 16.4% in 2021. Latino enrollment has grown from 8,910, or 24.97%, in 2012, to 11,335, or 37.86%, in 2021, peaking at 11,611, or 34.21%, in 2019. The Latino graduation rate has grown from 4.8% in 2012 to 14.7% in 2021, peaking at 16.3% in 2020.


Alternative description for “TMCC” infographic:

At TMCC, total undergraduate enrollment fell from a peak of 11,603 in 2012 to 9,431 in 2021. The total graduation rate grew from 15.8% in 2012 to 26.2% in 2021, peaking at 30.6% in 2016 and 2019. Latino enrollment has grown from 2,586, or 22.29%, in 2012, to 3,176, or 33.68%, in 2021, peaking at 3,682, or 32.54%, in 2019. The Latino graduation rate has grown unevenly from 15.1% in 2012 to 27.6% in 2021, peaking at 33.1% in 2014.

Students’ jobs in the Las Vegas Valley were especially affected by the pandemic, said Clarissa M. Cota, vice president of CSN’s North Las Vegas campus.

“We serve 75% part-time students because those students are working. And they were working, what, part-time jobs; they were working hourly jobs; they were working service jobs,” Cota said. “So for us, because of the populations we serve and who our students are, they were the most severely affected by COVID.”

For many Latino students, the pandemic forced significant changes in spending, including on school itself. More intense family responsibilities and less available work meant many chose to pause or slow down their college careers.

CSN is one of Nevada’s five Hispanic-Serving Institutions, or HSIs, alongside the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada State College, Truckee Meadows Community College, and Western Nevada College. A federal label, schools become HSIs by having at least 25% Latino students as well as a certain percentage of students on Pell Grants. The Pell Grant number cutoff changes each year but usually sits in the high-30 to low-40 percent range. The designation allows schools to apply for federal grants to fund interventions and programming that serve Latino students.

Nevada colleges, HSIs or not, have started building more pathways for Latino students to get to and through school. Cota, for example, said that CSN won an HSI-specific grant in 2020 that allowed CSN to provide a more robust math class support program to students because administrators noticed that completing math credits was often a barrier to graduation.

This type of program assists students that are already on campus, but schools have built recruitment programs for low-income, first-gen and Latino students as well. At UNR, for example, the Dean’s Future Scholars program runs a summer STEM enrichment curriculum for middle schoolers and academic credit opportunities for high schoolers. Once those students enroll at UNR, they can take advantage of community-focused programming and a dedicated space for studying and socializing.

Programs like the Dean’s Future Scholars do not just offer students the opportunity to learn outside of their regular middle and high school classrooms. They also give younger students the opportunity to see themselves on a college campus.

Michelee Cruz-Crawford is the first Latina to serve on the NSHE Board of Regents. She’s also the principal at Ronnow. Getting Latino students to consider and finalize their college plans can be a challenge, she said.

“If you’ve never had anyone in your family that has gone to college, it’s a lot harder to step through the college door,” Cruz-Crawford said. “So, I think just reaching out to our families is going to be the best.”

Karla Hernández is working on the frontline of that issue. She’s UNR’s new director of Hispanic/Latinx community relations. Hernández said that many Latino students struggle to get to college partially because the system requires so many steps that may be foreign to families that haven’t gone to college before.

“The simple fact of filling out the FAFSA or filling out the application to go to college can seem like this monumental challenge,” Hernández said. “And, speaking from experience, I had my high school math teacher sit down with me to fill out the college application, because my parents didn’t know how to guide me.”

Her new role allows her to be that bridge to UNR for those students like her.

Unfortunately, for many Latino students, getting to college is only one hurdle. Financial concerns intensify, support systems remain inaccessible, and academic pathways can be confusing once students get to school. Gonzalez, the PR major, said programming that could have helped him navigate UNR in his first couple of years was hard to find for busy, working students like himself.

Other students like Florentino “Tino” Juarez, now a fifth-grade teacher, struggled with his grades in his first two years at UNLV after graduating from high school in 2009. For him, the freedom that came with college-style learning and his lack of direction more broadly forced him to take a break from school and work for a time.

An illustrated portrait of a young man. He is wearing a collared shirt with polka dots and looking forward while smiling.
Lauren Ibañez for KUNR Public Radio
Florentino Juarez is a fifth-grade teacher at Ronnow. He graduated from Nevada State in 2021 after attending CSN and UNLV earlier in his college career.

In that time, he learned that he loved working with young people, so when he came back to UNLV in 2015, he had a better idea of what classes he wanted to take and where he wanted to end up.

“I enrolled back to school and it got better, my educational experience, because, I guess you can say, I kind of had a direction of where to go now,” Juarez shared.

Juarez later attended CSN and then ended up graduating from Nevada State in 2021.

Given these barriers for Latino students in Nevada, higher education leaders in the state generally focused on three possible ways to get more of those students to and through school: creating more mentorship and counseling opportunities, doing better outreach, and building cohesive on-campus communities. The current and former students KUNR interviewed agreed that these were the things that helped or could have helped them get through college.

Stephany Lopez is a kindergarten teacher and is pursuing a master’s degree in multicultural education. For her, having a mentor as she was completing the student teaching requirement in undergrad at UNLV really helped her push through a period in which she was struggling to navigate college and refine her English language skills. Lopez is originally from El Salvador.

An illustrated portrait of a young woman with shoulder-length hair. She is wearing a T-shirt and jacket and looking forward while smiling.
Lauren Ibañez for KUNR Public Radio
Stephany Lopez was not sure if she was going to go to college. Now, she's a kindergarten teacher and pursuing a master’s degree in multicultural education.

“My mentor teacher, she supported me a lot through that semester,” Lopez shared. “And she was like, ‘We need people like you that came and learned English as a second language just to show the kids that there are no barriers, that you can overcome your barriers, that you can become whatever you want to be in life.’ ”

Gonzales, the personal trainer, said that the best thing he got out of UNR was a mentor, too.

Higher education leaders that KUNR spoke to for this story all said they want to do better high school recruitment in the state and make sure Latino families know that they are welcome on campus.

Harriet Barlow is the executive director of the Intersection at UNLV. It’s a multicultural academic resource center dedicated to helping students navigate the university. She said building bridges to community members in the Las Vegas Valley is key to getting more Latino students to campus.

“The other thing I think that UNLV can do and is doing has just to do with community engagement. Letting people know, letting our community know and understand that ‘Hey, we are part of the community. We are wanting to engage with it,’ ” Harlow said.

But leaders do not just want to do better outreach. They want to look internally to see how they can build more inclusive, comfortable spaces on their campuses.

On a tour of Nevada State, Edith Fernández, vice president of culture, planning, and policy, often pointed out how the school incorporates Latino culture and art on its campus and hosts events that reflect the school’s diverse students.

But she also zeroed in on a very specific way the school could encourage Latino students to spend more time on campus.

“Having funding to increase the student wage, that would be a game changer,” Fernández said. “And research has shown that the more a student stays on campus, the higher chances they’ll graduate in a shorter amount of time and they’re just engaged with their campus.”

Specifically, she wants to hire more students to be peer mentors and tutors.

Hernández, the new outreach director for UNR, summed up the direction she wants the state to take. She wants to move away from just helping students complete their education through the traditional collegiate sink or swim model.

“I think we need to be aiming above and beyond that, which is aiming for Latino excellence,” Hernández said. “This idea of making, putting the systems in place and the resources in place, so that our students can really succeed and go as high as they want to, really.”

As a note of disclosure, the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents owns the license to this station.

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Jose Davila IV is a corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Jose Davila IV is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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