Essay on the academic performance of undocumented and other immigrant students

Are we missing out on an opportunity to enhance the supply of people in the United States who are prepared for careers that require higher education? Should we encourage the presence of undocumented immigrants in that pool?

Discussion about who has the right to come to the United States and what they are entitled to after arrival has been ongoing since our country’s founding. Often, including recently, this discussion has concerned the rights of immigrants to higher education, and to monetary support for that education. Such discussions have become particularly heated regarding immigrants whose presence in the U.S. has not been officially sanctioned

For over 10 years, various legislators have proposed different versions of what is known as the DREAM Act. If made law, the DREAM Act would make some undocumented higher education students eligible for the financial supports available to American citizens and permanent residents, for example in-state tuition and federal work-study programs, and provide a path to full legal status in the U.S. Although no version of the DREAM Act has as yet become federal law, some states have allowed undocumented college students to be eligible for in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges. New York is one such state. However, the in-state tuition is limited to undocumented students who have graduated from a New York State high school after several years of attendance, and who are making satisfactory progress in college. In addition, undocumented college students in New York State remain ineligible for New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and for federal Pell Grants, among other financial supports. Florida has recently enacted a policy similar to New York’s. 

At the City University of New York (CUNY) the situation of undocumented students, who compose approximately 3 percent of undergraduates, is complex. In two recent papers, Dylan Conger and Colin C. Chellman demonstrated that, in a large CUNY sample, undocumented students were as well-prepared for college as were U.S. citizens. Further, undocumented students performed better than U.S. citizens, and as well as or better than permanent residents, in terms of grades and completion of associate degrees. Nevertheless, undocumented students were less likely to complete their bachelor’s degrees, a finding that the authors suggested might be due to these students’ lack of state and federal financial aid.

The purpose of the present piece is not to tell colleges and universities, or state and federal agencies, what they should do concerning financial aid for undocumented students. The purpose of the present piece is simply to provide evidence, including some additional, new evidence, regarding the potential benefits of immigrant students — whether documented or undocumented — to our economy. 

We already know that:

  • The United States has more jobs that require a college education than there are American citizens and permanent residents with those qualifications, and that gap is growing.
  • There is a significant financial benefit to graduating from college.
  • College graduates benefit our society in a great many ways. For example, Professor Henry Levin’s analysis of (CUNY’s) highly successful ASAP program showed that this program, one that more than doubles associate-degree completion rates, will result in lower public assistance, public health, and criminal justice system expenditures, and greater tax revenue.
  • Financial support of college students increases the probability of their graduation, as well as decreases the amount of time to their graduation.

Together, these findings suggest that were we to do more to financially support academically qualified students in college, our society would benefit in multiple ways. The additional information that we present here concerns which students tend to major in the fields that lead to relatively more remunerative positions, and thus which students’ financial support might particularly contribute to a sufficient supply of people qualified for positions that promote our society’s economic growth.

For many years, research has reported that students who come from less economically privileged backgrounds are more likely to choose majors, such as business and engineering, that tend to lead to relatively more highly compensated careers. An early example of this research is Raymond Boudon’s 1974 book Education, Opportunity and Social Inequality.

However, our recent research has found that, in a diverse CUNY cohort of over 9,000 baccalaureate students, other student characteristics — whether a student is a member of an ethnic or racial minority or, what is most relevant to the present piece, was born outside the U.S. (a characteristic of 38 percent of CUNY’s 240,000 undergraduates) — are variables more closely associated with choice of major. Students with these characteristics are significantly more likely to choose to major in business and engineering than are other students. Due to the fact that students with these characteristics also tend to come from families that have lower incomes, descriptive statistics considered alone suggest a correlation between family income and major choice, at least in the CUNY sample. However, as demonstrated in regression analyses, the strongest relationship with major choice is immigrant status. Immigrant students may therefore contribute disproportionately to the popularity of certain relatively more remunerative majors and thus to the pool of candidates qualified to fill jobs that most benefit the economy.  Supporting these findings, in on of their papers, Conger and Chellman have shown that undocumented students are more likely to major in business and engineering than are American citizens.

For all of these reasons, it seems that it could be helpful to our economy to assist immigrant students in finishing college by providing them with financial aid, for example. This conclusion leads, then, to the question of whether, and how, to aid the college education of the subset of immigrant students who are undocumented.  As mentioned earlier, different states have different approaches to this.

However, merely providing undocumented students with financial aid will not necessarily allow these students to maximize their potential societal contributions. For example, CUNY’s undocumented students are unable to participate in the clinical training portion of the nursing major because they cannot obtain the malpractice insurance and/or the permission to work in hospitals required for that training. So, even if undocumented CUNY students obtain sufficient funds for college and earn a perfect 4.0 grade point average in all of their courses, they cannot become nurses. This is unfortunate because, as Conger and Chellman’s research has indicated, CUNY’s undocumented students include many potentially outstanding nurses, and New York City consistently needs highly qualified nurses.   

The lack of financial aid and other supports for undocumented students eliminates economic and other benefits that could accrue to our society from a greater number of college graduates. The City of New York has a long history, dating from centuries before the founding of CUNY, of welcoming immigrants and of prospering as a result. In his book The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto describes how the original Dutch colony of New Amsterdam encouraged immigrants and entrepreneurship of all sorts, policies whose positive influence is felt to this day. Shorto details how diversity and tolerance resulted in positive economic consequences for the colony and established a long-lasting, economically advantageous pattern of behavior for New York City. Encouraging immigration and encouraging higher education are conceptually linked in that both have to do with increasing access to opportunity and with increasing the presence in society of certain talents and skills. Both involve maximizing our society’s natural human resources.

We recognize, however, that providing financial aid to undocumented students might encourage more individuals and families to come to or stay in the United States illegally in order to obtain reduced-cost education. Various versions of the DREAM Act have been designed to take such possible consequences into account by providing financial aid only for a select portion of undocumented students. One example is the federal version of the DREAM Act currently being proposed by New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer. In this version, undocumented people may become United States permanent residents (and thus be eligible for federal financial aid) only if (1) they have been registered as provisional immigrants for at least five years; (2) initially entered the U.S. when younger than 16; (3) have a U.S. high school diploma or GED; (4) have a college degree, or have completed at least two years in good standing in a bachelor’s program, or have served honorably in the U.S. Uniformed Services for at least four years; and (5) have passed various security and law enforcement background checks. Under this proposal, the people who would benefit from the DREAM Act would be long-term U.S. residents who are very likely to be positive contributors to the national economy and society, people who frequently were brought here as young children at someone else’s initiative, and who know no home other than the U.S. 

Campaigns for access to education have long been seen as fights for individual rights. In 1949 W.E.B. Du Bois stated: “Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.”  There are also practical benefits for an entire society of maximizing the number of people who attend, and complete, college. Higher education can yield positive consequences, not only for the individuals who partake of it, but also for our economy as a whole. Undocumented students as a group constitute a significant pool from which to reap these benefits.

Alexandra W. Logue has served as the City University of New York's executive vice chancellor and provost since 2008 and will become a CUNY Research Professor on September 1. Samuel L. Shrank is a senior associate at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company.

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