Why So Few Undocumented Immigrants Make It Through College

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/ Esther Y. Lee

Undocumented immigrants who make it to college face a host of financial and logistical barriers. But they are dramatically more likely to succeed if they were beneficiaries of President Obama’s executive action program, according to a new Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education study.

In a survey of 909 undocumented undergraduate students across 34 states, the report authors found that a majority of undocumented students in the study reported worries about being detained or deported, with about half “personally knowing someone who had been deported including a parent or a sibling.” Undocumented undergraduates also reported higher levels of anxiety than the clinical cut off level for the “norm” population.

A vast majority of participants were “extremely concerned about financing their college education,” which inhibited their ability to succeed academically, the study pointed out. The vast majority — 90.3 percent — of undocumented students had a household annual income below $50,000. The College Board reported in a recent survey that a “moderate” college budget for an in-state public college averaged $23,410, while a budget at a private college averaged $46,272. The lack of access to in-state tuition or financial aid for many undocumented students has meant many must save up working for a long time before they can even attend college, or take time off during school to earn more money.

The president’s 2012 executive action known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which granted work authorization to undocumented immigrants, remedied some issues for survey participants. The study found that a majority of students reported higher rates of working, received grants and scholarships, and participated in internships that those students otherwise couldn’t do without legal presence. Requirements for the DACA program and other popular immigration reform bills require that applicants hold at least high school diplomas or GEDs.

“I am undocumented and even though I’m a DACA recipient, DACA does not provide me a path to legal status,” Catalina Adorno, a student and organizer at New Jersey Youth for Immigrant Liberation, said during a panel on the study. She came to the United States when she was nine years old and now lives in New Jersey. Adorno is currently getting her Master’s in Science Education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College and hopes to one day teach science to children.

“In New Jersey, you need to have Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) status to obtain a teaching certificate,” Adorno said. “I can’t teach at an university, so I started looking somewhere else. I’m in New York now. This is an issue that not only affects me, but a lot of other folks who want to obtain a professional license.”

The findings come at a time when the president’s deferred action programs are under attack by Republican lawmakers. At least 26 states filed a joint lawsuit to prevent the president from stop the president’s latest executive action which would broadly shield upwards of five million undocumented immigrants from deportation and provide them temporary work authorization. And Republican lawmakers introduced numerous amendments to eliminate the programs, which threatened to end Department of Homeland Security funding last month.

About 122,600 undocumented high school seniors attend high school every year, but only 31,850 are likely to attend a postsecondary institution each year. Of those, less than 2,000 are likely to graduate from college each year. In about 18 states, undocumented immigrants are able to pay the in-state tuition rate for public colleges, while in four states, those students can access state-funded financial aid. Those state laws, colloquially known as the state-level “DREAM Act,” have allowed undocumented students to access the same tuition rates as their peers. But some states like North Carolina, Georgia, Nevada, and Arkansas are states that lack beneficial tuition-equity laws and prevent undocumented students from either enrolling in some public colleges and universities (Georgia) or prohibits them from paying at the in-state tuition rate (Arizona).

In many other states, however, undocumented students are still fighting for financial access. Just this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and other assembly leaders omitted financial aid funding for undocumented immigrants from the state budget. More than 50 undocumented college students and allies to went on a week-long hunger strike that ended Tuesday. According to a press release from the advocacy group The New York Immigration Coalition, the New York State DREAM Act would allow undocumented college students who meet certain criteria to be eligible for state financial aid. Without the financial aid, the group stated that “90 to 95 percent of New York undocumented youth graduating from high school this year won’t go to college. Of the 5 to 10 percent that do enroll in college every year, few graduate because of rising tuition rates and lack of financial support.”

“These are de facto American children in the most fundamental way,” Dr. Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, one the lead study author, said. “They are American in all aspects. An overwhelming 90 percent of respondents reported that they would become U.S. citizens if given the chance.”