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William Perez

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Undocumented Students and Higher Education: Institutional Contexts

Research studies conclusively highlight the positive effects of in-state tuition legislation on undocumented student higher education enrollment. We also know about the challenges students face once they enroll. Studies suggest that faculty and staff often hold prejudice views against undocumented students. In states with in-state tuition policies, higher education staff that disagree with the policy refuse to help students while others are often unaware of the law. Administrative procedures often stigmatize students and further alienate them. As a result, many students end up relying on their peer networks for information on how to navigate the college process. Those lucky enough to have friends with the right information are able to persevere while others get misinformation or lack enough information to continue. In our work we have found that some students benefit greatly from devoted educators that go above and beyond their official roles to support and advocate for students. Unfortunately, educational success for undocumented students is often at the mercy of chance and circumstance.

One of the biggest stressors for undocumented students is the lack of financial resources. Not just to pay for tuition and other school costs but also to provide for the basic necessities. In that respect we have come a long way in recent years with the passage of in-state tuition and tuition-assistance laws. In addition, private colleges, foundations, and other non-profit organizations have greatly reduced students’ financial concerns through scholarships and partial or full tuition assistance. Over the past several years I’ve compiled a list of over 45 private colleges and universities that provide tuition assistance. The schools that provide full-tuition assistance include most of the ivy-league schools and many of the most selective and prestigious liberal arts colleges in the nation. One the one hand, through their policies these schools exhibit an exemplary commitment to undocumented students by recognizing and nurturing their talents. On the other hand, however, due to concerns about negative publicity or backlash from conservative alumni, their “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to helping students misses the opportunity to inspire similar institutions to follow in their example and the general public fails to realize the widespread support for undocumented students. I don’t have the qualms they do so I brag on their behalf whenever I can. Here’s the list. Tell everyone you know.

When I’m invited to speak to a college or university that is not on my list I make sure to highlight their absence. A recent visit to a private college led to an institutional epiphany that exemplifies some of the challenges of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. During my lecture I noted that the college was not on the list. Some students and faculty in the audience remarked that the school should extend tuition assistance to undocumented students. Sympathetic administrators in the audience nodded in agreement. On my way to the airport the next day I felt optimistic about institutional efforts to provide tuition assistance to undocumented students in the near future. I sensed a critical mass among students, faculty, and administrators who would champion the issue. When I landed back in LA I got an e-mail from a school administrator who had asked around only to find out that the school already had a policy of providing financial assistance to admitted undocumented students. No one in the audience the night before knew! It seemed to be one of the school’s best kept secret even though students, faculty, and staff were committed to supporting students. I’m happy to say that they’re now on my list and I’m confident that there will be better communication and coordination of efforts to continue to support students.

As undocumented students become more represented on college campuses, through in-state tuition and tuition-assistance laws, private scholarships, and now DACA, there is a growing need to implement effective strategies to support them. Undocumented students are far less likely to know the requirements necessary or the process of applying to college. From admissions and residency to making tuition payments, students find little coordination across administrative units and find themselves having to make multiple trips to offices in order to get their questions answered and their problems resolved. Some students stumble across information on the internet, often risking being misinformed. Although small numbers of students have found their way through these administrative barriers, many others continue to be denied entry.

Research suggests that community colleges play a key role for undocumented students. Lower tuition costs facilitate enrollment. However, undocumented students require highly specialized informational resources as a result of the institutional barriers created by their legal status. Despite their promise as the gateway to higher education for undocumented students, undocumented students who enroll in community colleges often encounter academic and socioemotional challenges that require special attention, and often go unaddressed. Whereas some are high academic achievers and more motivated to succeed than students who were U.S. citizens, others struggle academically. Undocumented students also arrived at the community college with varying academic preparation and differing levels of English proficiency. Fearful undocumented students unwilling to self-disclose their status create a challenge for college staff in assisting them. Sometimes misinformation hinders the admission process of undocumented students and often stalled their efforts to pursue a postsecondary education. Due to a lack of information on all the challenges that students face, some community college personnel feel that services and specific assistance to undocumented students are not necessary or frame their views as a concern about undocumented students receiving preferential treatment in the classroom or in college services. Although I sometimes hesitate to accept too many speaking engagements, these alarming trends in the research literature make it so that I almost never turn down the opportunity to address community college faculty and staff.

About the author

William Perez is an Associate Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University. His research focuses on the social and psychological development of immigrant students, and Latino academic achievement and higher education access.

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