America Needs Grads, but These Teens Face Tough Barriers to College

Every year, tens of thousands of undocumented students graduate from high school with no way to continue their education.

(Photo: David Young-Wolff/Getty Images)

Mar 31, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Each year, more than 65,000 young people who grew up in the United States but who don’t have American citizenship graduate from high schools across the country. Yet, when it’s time to prepare for college and perhaps use a diploma to move up in life, the nation tends to send them a painful message: Dream on.

Because of a labyrinthian system of federal and state rules, restrictions, and conflicting information, only about 6,500 undocumented immigrants who graduate from high school move on to college, according to twin studies from the Center for American Progress, a public-policy think tank, and UCLA’s Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education.

“It’s very hard to find schools that are having the conversation” on how immigration and education are linked, said Laura Bohórquez García, coordinator of the Dream Education Empowerment Program, run by the immigration-education activist organization United We Dream, at a panel discussion Tuesday at the Center for American Progress. “It’s very much siloed. It’s either immigration or education.”

Yet, “we’re seeing that education and immigration is kind of like a double-edged sword” in that pathways to citizenship, such as the DREAM Act, require an education, Bohórquez García said. The problem, she added, is that “we’re making it really, really hard for students” to enroll in college and start on that path.

The report comes at a time when experts say a college degree is more important than ever.

“It not only offers the most dependable path to achieving social mobility, but it also allows the United States to remain competitive in the global economy,” according to the UCLA report.

“For the thousands of undocumented young people who graduate from American high schools each year, the path to a college degree or a postsecondary credential is overshadowed by the complex state, federal, and institutional policies that determine available education options,” to the report says.

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. must give every child access to free elementary and secondary education regardless of citizenship status. But that ruling doesn’t cover public colleges and universities.

Some states have opened college to children of undocumented immigrants, drafting their own versions of the federal DREAM Act. Instead of granting citizenship status to children of undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements, the state version allows them to pay in-state college tuition or get access to financial aid or college grants.

Other states, however, have all but shut the college gates on undocumented high school graduates. In Georgia, undocumented students are barred from enrolling in some public colleges and universities, and in Arizona, they must pay out-of-state tuition at public colleges—they can pay in-state tuition at community college, but only at two of the state’s 12 major community colleges.

Meanwhile, in four states where the undocumented immigrant population has exploded—North Carolina, Georgia, Nevada, and Arkansas—there aren’t any provisions for unauthorized students to pay lower tuition, even though more than 61 percent of undocumented students come from households with an annual income of $30,000 or less.

Complicating the problem is that there aren’t enough guidance counselors who could help undocumented high school juniors and seniors prepare for higher education and navigate the college entry system. The shortage of counselors is particularly high in poor school districts, which tend to have the most unauthorized residents and need the most guidance. The Association for College Admission Counseling reports that the average American high school has just one guidance counselor for every 500 students—and that’s in some of the better districts. Some districts have one counselor for nearly 1,000 kids; others don’t have any.

That lack of guidance can mean the difference between access to scholarship money and trying to balance a demanding job with schoolwork while avoiding the pitfalls of a high dropout rate.

There are opportunities for change, according to the report: Congress should create a framework for citizenship and allow students to qualify for federal financial aid; the White House should allow parents of undocumented immigrants to legally stay in the U.S.; and colleges must expand qualifications for grants and scholarships to unauthorized immigrant students.

But during the panel discussion, Catalina Adorno, a student at Columbia Teachers’ College and an immigrant youth organizer in New Jersey, said that students can’t wait for top-down change—they have to push for it from the bottom up.

“When I finally understood what being undocumented meant, when I was making that transition from high school to college, it was really difficult” struggling to make tuition and working while attending classes, Adorno said. “In a way, I feel like I have to do something. I feel like it’s my responsibility to act. What’s happening to us is really unjust. We have to fight back.”