Not all loans are bad, Santiago said. If they enable students to attend school full time, for instance, the students are more likely to graduate and get the kinds of jobs they need to repay that debt.
But the downside of first-generation, low-income Hispanics attending private, liberal-arts colleges, she said, “is if they don't complete. Then they’re saddled with debt and no degrees.”
Campuses with few other people like them, like those at the private colleges in Appalachia, also may not always be the best places for first-generation Hispanics already intimidated by the complexities of higher education, Santiago said.
“If you're not someone who is persistent, and there’s no social support structure, then you're less likely to complete your degree,” Santiago said. “If the institution is being intentional and trying to serve Hispanic students, that's where you see a difference in completion rates, as opposed to leaving it to students to figure things out on their own.”
Of course, public universities and colleges can be forbidding, too. When Martinez’s family visited Catawba Valley Community College, the college told them they would have to pay out-of-state tuition, since she is not a U.S. citizen, as per the rules of North Carolina’s community-college system.
Meanwhile, the family drove past Lenoir-Rhyne’s leafy campus on daily errands. “It seemed like a dream or something impossible to reach,” said Martinez’s mother, Josefina.
Martinez and her parents visited during the school’s annual event for prospective Hispanic applicants. “We felt like we could identify with the place when we saw other Hispanics,” her father, Carlos, recalled. “We got our hope back.”
They made an appointment to meet with Sellers and others. When they saw the so-called “sticker price” for a year’s tuition alone—then about $30,000, and now $34,120—their hopes fell again. But they were counseled through applying for scholarships and got $23,000 in grants. They borrowed the rest.
Now Martinez has finished her second year studying graphic design, with a minor in Spanish. She hopes to go on to graduate school in California and learn to edit music videos.
The outcomes for Barrera Cantu and Martinez, who know each other and are friends, are symbolic of the challenges and costs of luring more Hispanic students to four-year private colleges. But for Sellers, the glass is half full: She pointed out that she reports directly to her school’s president, underlining the importance of this work to the university hierarchy. And she said she sees the high-school visits as a sign they’re learning as they go.
“We have to get to them where they are,” said Sellers. That realization, as at Maryville, came only after years of trying to draw Hispanic students and their families to campus, with dwindling success.
She said the school has to overcome a perception problem. “People think it’s only for white, wealthy families,” she said.