Efren Berrones and Israel Demandel.
CNN  — 

Efren Berrones grabbed his luggage and booked a 4,000-mile flight home to Houston fearing his mother would be highly vulnerable to Covid-19 and alone.

In the past seven months, Berrones, a sophomore at Hawaii Pacific University, withdrew from school for a semester to stay with his mother, who has several autoimmune disorders. Without a job, he depleted his savings and later, he considered giving up on college when he learned his full-ride scholarship would be partially cut.

“The thought crossed my mind with all of this happening because I started to think, ‘how am I gonna afford it?,’” the 20-year-old said.

College enrollment across the United States has been on the decline for years but in the past two decades, more Latino students like Berrones have been going to college. Now, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing many of them to decide between staying in school and working to help their families survive the economic recession caused by Covid-19.

Historically, college enrollment among White non-Latino students has been higher than any other demographic group in the United States, but Latino students have made big inroads in part because they are the youngest of the nation’s largest racial and ethnic groups.

From 2000 to 2018, the number of Latino students rose to 3.4 million from 1.4 million, marking the highest growth in all race and ethnic groups, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Latino communities have been hit hard due to their jobs as essential workers and multigenerational living conditions. Latinos, like African Americans, are more likely to be hospitalized for Covid-19 and are dying at disproportionate rates, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show.

The pandemic is also threatening the progress that Latinos have made in higher education.

Most institutions across the country have seen a drop in enrollment in recent months. Undergraduate enrollment plummeted 4.4% compared to last year, according to preliminary results from an analysis by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which collects data from about 97% of all US higher education institutions.

Undergraduate Latino students were the only racial and ethnic group that grew last fall, but that trend appears to have been reversed. The group saw a 5.4% decline in enrollment this fall after experiencing a 1.4% increase last year, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center said.

Among the states with at least 5,000 Latino students at undergraduate and graduate levels, enrollment fell at higher percentages in several Midwest states while only California, Texas and Washington appeared to have an increase, preliminary data from the NSCRC show.

Students are making difficult decisions to help their families

The pandemic has jeopardized the future of many promising first-generation college students, pushing them to make difficult decisions.

Israel Demandel, 18, was the robotics team captain and was on track to become this year’s valedictorian at Harmony School of Excellence in Laredo, Texas, when Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. Weeks later, he was admitted with a full-ride scholarship to Yale University.

“I knew that being accepted was a really good thing but I didn’t know what it would mean because of coronavirus,” said Demandel, whose goal is to pursue a career in biomedical engineering.

Israel Demandel and his mother, Karina Valadez, at his high school graduation in Laredo, Texas, in May.

As the months passed, Demandel and his mother, were unsure what his first year in college would look like but it didn’t stop them from dreaming about walking together on Yale’s campus, especially because she has never traveled outside of Texas.

“To me, showing her Connecticut and Yale, it’s a way to share my journey and also repaying all her years of helping me out through high school, providing a roof over my head and putting food on the table,” he said.

When Yale announced it would be welcoming some students to live on campus in the fall, it became a bittersweet moment for Demandel. His mom had just lost her cashier job at a grocery store.

“I knew that I was not going to be comfortable going to Yale, and just leaving my family without any sort of financial support,” Demandel said.

Demandel opted to enroll in virtual courses.

“I just had to suck up whatever aspirations or hope I had to be on campus and just face the fact that my family needed me at that point,” he added.

In the past months, Demandel took his first college courses over Zoom while his mother found another job. He is planning to move to Connecticut early next year with the peace of mind that his family will be alright.

Community colleges are hit hard

Some Latinos attend community colleges to avoid the daunting cost of traditional four-year universities. Yet, the pandemic is making it harder to enter the higher education system that way.

Deborah Santiago, co-founder and CEO for Excelencia in Education, a national organization focused on accelerating Latino students’ success in higher education, says community colleges are more likely to enroll students that are economically vulnerable and need to work while they’re enrolled.

“The trade off is sometimes, do I go to school or do I work and support my family? Am I paying my tuition or am I bringing in resources so we can eat and address basic needs?,” Santiago said.

When the pandemic started to impact the country in mid-March, more than half of Latinos between 18 to 29 years old said they were being affected by job cuts or job losses, according to the Pew Research Center.

Almost two-thirds of Latino students said in the early months of the pandemic that they were dealing with insecurity related to their most basic needs, such as food and housing, according to a survey conducted by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, a research group focused on the needs of college students.

This fall, Miami Dade College, one of the institutions awarding the most associate degrees to Latino students in the country, experienced a dramatic decline in enrollment and the steepest in its 60-year history. Fall enrollment is down nearly 12 % among Latino and Black students, the school said.

Miami Dade College with its eight campuses has one of the largest Hispanic enrollements in the country.

The college surveyed 2,465 high school students who applied and MDC’s students who took courses in the previous three terms but didn’t register for the fall semester. Some students indicated they decided not to register due to concerns about the virtual learning experience and their health and safety due to Covid-19. Others said they were attending another institution.

Juan C. Mendieta, a spokesman for Miami Dade College, said in a statement to CNN that the situation is concerning but school administrators remain optimistic.

“This is a national challenge especially at community colleges where the vulnerable student population is reeling from the pandemic with many in survival mode and with their education on the back burner, as they worry about their jobs, finances, housing and families,” Mendieta said.

Not all institutions are facing the same challenges. Campuses in the California State University system and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley saw a bump in Hispanic enrollment.

UTRGV, which serves one of the poorest areas in the country, saw its highest fall enrollment with 32,618 students since the school was funded in 2013 and had an increase in their first-year retention rate, according to data released by the university.

President Guy Bailey said the university offered financial relief packages that included up to $1,000 to cover tuition and increased the number of on-campus jobs for students, knowing that “the vast majority of our students work and many of them would be losing their jobs.”

“One of the things we did not want our students to do was to stop out, because once students stop out, they often stay out. And it’s very hard to get back in,” Bailey told CNN.

Berrones, who didn’t enroll in school for the fall semester to stay with his mother, knows that. In a few weeks, he will be traveling to Hawaii to prepare for the spring semester, hoping to find a job that will supplement his expenses after his scholarship was reduced due to the economic crisis linked to the pandemic.

“I’m going to Hawaii with no much money left,” he said. “But I’m gonna go there and it’s gonna work out because I have to get this degree.”