Inaccessible Dreams: Undocumented Students’ Financial Barriers to College Attainment

by Angel Luis Velez / Oct 5, 2016

The legality of undocumented people in the U.S. continues to garner national attention in a polarized election year. Despite the economic benefits of comprehensive immigration reform, policymakers on Capitol Hill have remained in a continuing deadlock. Revamping the nation’s immigration system in today’s politicized environment seems extremely unlikely. As a result, the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants and 1.7 million undocumented immigrant youth will continue living on the margins of society. A report by Perez (2014) suggests that 80,000 undocumented immigrant youth turn 18 and 65,000 graduate from high school every year. Yet, their lived experiences as undocumented students represent an inescapable barrier to their dreams of attaining a college degree.

In the mid-2000s, a new undocumented youth movement began sweeping the nation, including colleges and universities. For undocumented students, this collective effort represented the frustration of anti-immigrant legislation in Congress, which was meant to criminalize undocumented immigrant communities (Gonzales, 2008). Across the country, hundreds of thousands of people, including young and old, took the streets to protest these legislations and to demand protections for immigrants. For K-12 undocumented children, the Plyler decision guaranteed them an education (Gonzales, 2008). However, for these students, continuing to higher education was less definite and much more challenging. Within the national movement, undocumented student activists and allies have pursued policies to assist in their transition to college.

While in high school, undocumented youth come to realize that higher education might not be a possibility. Their dreams and aspirations come to a halt and reality begins to sink. Since undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial aid and most state financial assistant programs, the cost of tuition becomes a burden for students and their families and limits their educational attainment. Since comprehensive immigration reform has stalled at the federal level, state governments were left to deal with the matter (Gonzales, 2009). Undocumented students were left to pursue in-state tuition legislation for colleges and universities to alleviate the financial squeeze from the high tuition costs. The struggle for in-state tuition has reduced some of the financial burdens and has increased the number of undocumented college students (Gonzales, 2009). So far, the application of these state laws is uneven, and only one-third of the states have approved in-state tuition legislation for undocumented students (Darolia & Potochnick, 2015). Due to public pressure, the federal government adopted a law to provide some relief to undocumented students, but this too, affected undocumented students unevenly.

In June 2012, President Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for eligible undocumented youth and young adults to temporary relief them from deportation and work authorization. Despite some educational and economic gains, a 2015 DACA Report suggests that undocumented college students continue to work low-paying jobs and have a difficult time accessing health insurance and paying the bills. For undocumented students that did not qualify for DACA or did not have the money to pay the application fee, they will continue living in a constant fear of deportation. In June 2016, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to Obama’s plan to protect as many as five million undocumented immigrants from deportation, which included an expansion of the DACA program from the existing 1.2 million to 1.5 million beneficiaries.

Given the financial burden and other structural factors affecting undocumented college students, the majority of them enroll in community colleges. Nevertheless, these students continue to struggle economically to attend college and often work menial jobs (Abrego & Gonzales, 2010). In many ways, these struggles made college completion for them incredibly difficult. Without a college degree and legal documentation, the prospect of undocumented students to work in high paying jobs is highly unlikely. The average college degree holder earns more than 60 percent over the span of their lives than someone with a high school diploma (Gonzales, 2009). Since most undocumented students come from working class backgrounds, the recurrent tuition increases in college limit their ability to attain a college degree. Research continues to show that in-state tuition policies have a positive effect on degree completion (Conger & Turner, 2015). Munsch and Kelsay assert, “As the undocumented population of students enroll on public community college campuses, staff members must be cognizant of the delivery of services. Institutional leaders should clearly identify the tuition polices of the state community college system for undocumented students and provide information on how to apply to the institution and for the in-state tuition rates (where applicable) (2014, p. 61). Therefore, programs geared towards increasing funding for undocumented students and in-state tuition legislation have a positive effect on undocumented college students attendance and graduation.

In 2015, President Obama proposed to make community colleges tuition-free. Even though federal law has not passed, states have implemented new initiatives and strategies to provide free tuition community colleges. In Chicago, for example, the Chicago Star Scholarship is opened to undocumented students. This initiative cover the tuition costs, fees, and books for students who graduate from Chicago Public Schools and attend one of the City Colleges of Chicago. A new report from the Chicago Reporter concluded that undocumented college students benefit the most from this program. Since federal legislation has not moved forward, cities and colleges themselves can ease the financial burden for talented undocumented college students and their families.

The national undocumented student movement captivated the imagination of community members, political leaders, and post-secondary institutions. These students challenged top-down perspectives that kept them invisible to the masses and were able to create a movement that continues to gain steam today. Undocumented activists have continue to battle for comprehensive immigration reform and the opportunity of a fair chance to college access and attainment. Fortunately, some politicians and scholars agreed with these students and are working with them to amplify their voices in Congress. In the future, community colleges, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Minority-Serving Institutions will continue to play an increasing role in undocumented student college attainment. The question is: Are they ready for the challenge?

About the author

Angel Luis Velez is a Ph.D. student in Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership with concentrations in History of Education and Latina/o Studies. Broadly speaking, his research interests explore notions of citizenship, urban politics, and Latina/o history in higher education


Suggested Readings

  • Abrego, L. J. (2006). “I can’t go to college because I don’t have papers”: Incorporation patterns of Latino undocumented youth. Latino Studies4(3), 212-231. doi:10.1057/palgrave.lst.8600200
  • Gonzales, R. G. (2015). Lives in limbo: Undocumented and coming of age in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Gonzales, R. G., Terriquez, V., & Ruszczyk, S. P. (2014). Becoming DACAmented: Assessing the short-term benefits of deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA). American Behavioral Scientist58(14), 1852-1872. doi:10.1177/0002764214550288
  • Hernandez, S., Hernandez, I., Gadson, R., Huftalin, D., Ortiz, A. M., White, M. C., & Yocum‐Gaffney, D. (2010). Sharing their secrets: Undocumented students' personal stories of fear, drive, and survival. New Directions for Student Services131, 67-84. doi: 10.1002/ss.368
  • Perez, W. (2009). We are Americans: Undocumented students pursuing the American dream. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.