Part 3: How to Help Hispanic Students Succeed in College—Borrowing
While states struggle to control escalating tuition and expenses at public universities, finding—or borrowing—enough money for school is an ongoing concern for many students and their families. At Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) in Laredo, Texas, Vice President of Student Success Dr. Minita Ramirez explains that the challenge is heightened because its predominately Hispanic student population is culturally unaccustomed to borrowing money—for anything.
Nearly two decades ago, when she began working in the world of financial aid at TAMIU, Ramirez says, “few Hispanic students would borrow money because they worried about how they would pay it back.” Today, she notes, those who are taking out loans are doing so responsibly, thanks to several initiatives the university supports.
Responsible Borrowing Starts with the FAFSA
As early as the recruitment stage, financial aid is front-and-center. When Ramirez and her recruitment team visit high schools, the discussions with students always include the issues of affordability. A top priority during those recruitment efforts is to ensure that students and their families understand they really can afford a university education.
“We work diligently to diminish the mentality of, ‘I don’t think I can afford it,’” she says. “We are very deliberate about getting students to file their FAFSAs, and to understand that doing so is critical to their financial support for college—not just for loans but for grants, scholarships, and any other type of supplemental aid they might qualify for.”
Throughout the year, the university also hosts numerous family financial aid nights—keeping in mind the understanding that the decision to attend college is a family matter. She says that, in Hispanic homes with first- or second-generation students, parents play a paramount role in how and where their children study—and whether or not they will need to borrow money.
Face-to-Face Entrance Counseling Is Recommended—Every Year
Although TAMIU provides many online resources, ongoing face-to-face counseling is always available and recommended.
The U.S. government mandates that all universities conduct exit counseling with regard to student loans. But TAMIU takes it a few steps further, requiring ‘entrance counseling’ at the beginning of each year—from freshman through senior years. As part of an experiment currently being conducted by the Department of Education, TAMIU is able to provide extra counseling—beyond the regulatory limit of just one session—to determine if doing so improves student outcomes.
Ramirez likes what she’s seen so far. “If you borrow money, you are going to have entrance counseling—even if it’s your third or fourth year,” she says. “Students do exit counseling in person, too—so they can ask any remaining questions. Counseling is one way we manage default rates.”
Making Sure Financial Aid Concepts Don’t Get Lost in Translation
The reason all this attention is paid to borrowing at TAMIU is that, for Hispanic students, language about money and borrowing can get lost in translation—and not from English to Spanish or vice-versa. It’s more about the culture of borrowing.
“For someone who does not have a checking account and has never used a bank, and always pays with cash, there is still a certain ‘language barrier,’” Ramirez says. “So, we want to make sure our students understand what financial aid really means.”
All financial aid information is offered in English, but most staff members at TAMIU are bilingual. If a question is asked in Spanish, or someone needs a more detailed explanation and prefers it in Spanish, the FinAid counselors are able to do that. Additionally, they explain to students what their borrowing range is and advise students to borrow according to their academic need.
Options Beyond Borrowing for School
Even if borrowing isn’t an option, the Financial Aid Office still asks students to talk about financial aid because the university has made a promise to provide students a variety of financial opportunities. Ramirez explains that this commitment has helped improve student retention, boost graduation rates, and enable students to succeed in college—and beyond.
Ramirez says that TAMIU students, for the most part, are very conservative with their finances. And many still say they don’t want to borrow money. More often, she notes, they’ll get a part-time job in order to pay for school by the end of the semester. Today, more than 70% of TAMIU students work anywhere from 19 to 40 hours per week.
According to Ramirez, the university has a generous payment process and offers institutional emergency loans with reasonable installment plans throughout each semester. Additionally, through its strong scholarship program, TAMIU awards and rewards students based on academic merit.
Helping Hispanic students and families understand the cost and value of higher education, and how to best afford it, drives student success—a goal in which Ramirez remains passionate and committed today.
Continuing our blog series on the ‘ABCs of student finance’ for Hispanic students, Dr. Ramirez talks about managing the cost of administration—and the success of a one-stop financial services model—in our next installment.