Dr. William Perez, Associate Professor, Claremont Graduate University
During the last two decades, the U.S. has undergone a significant demographic transformation due to immigration from Latin America. As a result, Latinos are now the largest ethnic minority group. Due to failed immigration policies, however, among the immigrant population are 11 million undocumented persons, 75% of which are Latino, and approximately 2.8 million children under 18 years of age who were brought here by their parents and grew up as “Americans”. As these undocumented students approach high school graduation and begin to explore their post-secondary options, the process is often confusing and frustrating due to their legal status. I highlight three educational factors that impact higher education access for undocumented Latino students.
Since 1975, various school districts tried to prohibit undocumented children from attending public schools. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional in the case of Plyler v. Doe
asserting that denying education to children who cannot affect their own status would impose a lifetime hardship. Presently, however, court-mandated educational access ends every year for approximately 65,000 undocumented high school graduates. After extensive public educational investment, higher education becomes an elusive dream for most of them.
Undocumented high school graduates do not qualify for financial aid, cannot legally work, and may be deported at any time. Despite the introduction of the federal DREAM Act in 2001 which would provide a path to legalization and full access to higher education, it has yet to be passed into law. Since 2001, Texas, followed by California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin began to pass state laws that allow undocumented students to be eligible for in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. While federal legislation is still pending, there is a need to develop effective strategies to facilitate higher education access for undocumented students.
Issue #1: Lack of Information about Post-Secondary Options
One of the main challenges undocumented students face is a lack of guidance and information about their options for college. Students often keep their immigration status a secret because they fear educators will not be sympathetic or know how to react to their situation. Educators therefore need to develop sensitive ways of accessing this information and be prepared to provide supportive guidance and informational resources about college-going for undocumented students. If students live in one of the eleven states that provide in-state resident tuition rates, students should be provided with this information as early as middle school. High schools and colleges can also play a part by collaborating to organize informational conferences for undocumented students and their families to learn about navigating higher education as an undocumented student. Additionally, colleges should examine and modify administrative procedures that may inadvertently stigmatize undocumented students, such as online applications that exclude undocumented students by requiring a social security number to apply for admission.
Issue #2: Limited Financial Resources
Another challenge undocumented students face is the burden of fully financing their college education. In fact, many undocumented students who are accepted to four-year universities will instead enroll at a community college because they cannot afford more expensive tuition. Thus, students need active assistance in locating private or non-governmental scholarships for which they can apply. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, and the National Council of La Raza have compiled extensive lists of scholarships for undocumented students. Additionally, a growing number of private colleges provide full scholarships to undocumented students that are derived from private donations and unrestricted funds (www.williamperezphd.com
). It is imperative that educators have knowledge of these various resources and disseminate that information widely to their students.
Issue #3: Unsupportive College Campus Climate
After overcoming numerous barriers to gain entrance to college, undocumented students often find themselves in unsupportive college environments. Thus, as students weigh their higher education options, they need to be encouraged to consider one of the growing number of institutions that have student support groups on campus. Undocumented student groups can help them access various resources and support services to adjust to college life. Membership to these organizations also provides students with peer role models who can share critical information about navigating college, a sense of empowerment, and official institutional recognition which serves as a platform for student activism and advocacy. Often it is these student groups that will significantly change the climate at institutions by educating administrators, faculty, staff and classmates about supporting undocumented students. Staff can serve as advisors for undocumented student groups or help create a campus task force to raise awareness within a community. Faculty and staff can also empower students by helping them create a safe space to meet and support each other, provide easily accessible information about resources, and to develop a network of allies on and off campus to assist students and parents.
There are thousands of undocumented college students, who despite numerous obstacles, are determined to earn a college degree. To overcome the challenges noted here, students need supportive friends, family, and educators working together to develop a clear pathway to higher education. With the proper information, financial assistance, and moral support undocumented students will be able realize their full educational potential. As suggested by the Supreme Court 30 years ago in the Plyler v. Doe
case: It is in all of our best interest to provide higher education access and a path to legalization for talented undocumented Latino students.
Dr. William Perez is an Associate Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University. His research focuses on Latino academic achievement and higher education access. He is recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts on undocumented students. His most recent book is titled, Americans by Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education.