About the Post

William Perez

Author Information

Undocumented Students and Higher Education: Academic Success

A significant trend in the research on undocumented students is the focus on academic achievement and the ways in which the fortunate few that have been able to pass through the eye of the needle to access higher education. Various studies chronicle the daunting odds overcome by undocumented students who enter and graduate from college.

The accomplishments of high achieving undocumented students are impressive for a variety of reasons. Compared with their U.S.-born counterparts, undocumented youths are at greater risk of anxiety and depressive symptoms. They are often reluctant to develop close, emotional relationships with others for fear of their undocumented status being discovered. Despite various risk factors, undocumented students who have high levels of personal and environmental protective factors such as supportive parents, friends, and participation in school activities, report higher levels of academic success than students with similar risk factors but lower levels of personal and environmental resources. Teacher, counselors, and other educators are important sources of information and guidance for undocumented students who grow up in poor socioeconomic conditions. Interventions come in a variety of forms such as recommending students for the honors track or encouraging them to apply to highly selective universities that provide full scholarships. Relationships with school counselors and teachers can also be a source of negative treatment. Educators, particularly school counselors, often act as gatekeepers by questioning students’ academic abilities and/or refusing to place them in academically rigorous courses.

For college-going undocumented students, support networks help them navigate the process of higher education. Support from faculty and staff plays a key role in maintaining high levels of optimism and perseverance. Getting involved on campus in extracurricular activities gives them a sense of belonging. In spite of their parents’ limited education and familiarity with the U.S. educational system, undocumented college students often report that their parents’ hard work and sacrifices motivate them to pursue higher education. Although students are often frustrated by the numerous restrictions they encounter due to their undocumented status, several studies note that many college students dedicate their efforts to mentor or help other undocumented students and/or become involved in activism and develop a sense of empowerment. A growing number of colleges have supportive student groups for undocumented students that provide in-depth information about how to navigating college, how to fund-raise, and raise awareness for other students on campus.

While there’s a growing body of research on undocumented student achievement among those in higher education, we know virtually nothing about most undocumented young adults, the estimated 1.6 million between the ages of 18–24 that either did not graduate from high school or did not pursue higher education after earning a high school diploma. They represent 74% of all undocumented young adults between the ages of 18–24. Although they account for the vast majority of undocumented young adults, they remain invisible because they are not academically successful like the undocumented valedictorian that is accepted into Harvard with a full scholarship profiled in the news, or the heroic undocumented activist that risks it all by engaging in an act of civil disobedience to compel politicians to support the Dream Act or to protest immigration policies. Another important reason why we don’t know much about them is because they are a highly vulnerable population that is very difficult to recruit for research studies. They are often absent from the places where researchers recruit participants, educational settings. Nevertheless, without comprehensive research studies that examine their educational experiences, our knowledge about educational access for undocumented youth will remain extremely limited. Although no news stories are written about them and no research studies have focused on them, I have had the privilege of meeting many of these young adults over the years.

I met Adriana (pseudonym) over eight years ago when she was a high school senior. Her story exemplifies how undocumented status prevents others like her from accessing higher education. I was introduced to her by one of her teachers during the course of a study I was conducting on achievement motivation among immigrant students. He described her as one of brightest students he ever had. I was equally impressed when I met her. After she graduated from high school she did everything she could to continue on to college. She worked long hours and enrolled at the local community college but it soon became too difficult to balance both and she left school. We lost contact but thanks to the wonders of social media I reconnected with her five years later.  Although she longs to return to school and earn a college degree, family responsibilities make it virtually impossible. Due to her undocumented status, she contends with the dangers of driving to work without a driver’s license. On several occasions, so called, “sobriety check-points,” have led to her car being impounded for weeks and having to pay thousands of dollars over the past several years in tickets and impound fees because she has no other way to get to work to provide for her family. If she had legal status she probably would have already earned her college degree. We need studies on young adults like Adriana to develop a more comprehensive view of educational access among immigrant populations to create better policies.

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.

Follow @williamperezphd on Twitter, Become a fan on Facebook

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.