Data on the Undocumented

March 17, 2009

Just over half (53.6 percent) of colleges knowingly admit undocumented immigrant students to degree or diploma programs under certain circumstances, while 46.4 percent do not.

Public two-year colleges are the most likely to knowingly admit students residing in the United States illegally, with 69.9 percent indicating that they do so, whereas just 40.7 percent of private nonprofit colleges say the same.

Those are among the many findings of a new survey from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, to which 613 of the association's roughly 2,000 member institutions responded. (Of the 613, 260 filled out the survey completely, while most, 353, completed it partially. For instance, only 384, or 62.6 percent of all respondents, answered the inquiry on knowingly admitting undocumented students.)

The data fill a void where anecdotes -- and deep passions -- have lived. While the issue has flared periodically (most notably, of late, at the North Carolina community colleges), little is known on a national level about institutional policies on admitting and enrolling illegal immigrants.

“There are a number of pure or philosophical positions out there with regard to undocumented students, but very little by way of actual information from a campus administrative perspective,” said Barmak Nassirian, AACRAO’s associate executive director. “In general, there is sort of a false image in people’s heads when the topic is discussed -- of a group of people with ‘undocumented’ tattooed on their foreheads walking around the campus. And that’s not so.”

Of the findings, he said, “The vast majority of institutions” -- 96.9 percent -- "do actually inquire about citizenship/legal residency status in the form of a question.”

“But then, once you solicit the answer, how you act on the answers that you receive very clearly separates institutions from each other. ... In practice, the numbers are all over the map when it comes to who they verify, how they verify, etc.”

On verification, just 19.6 percent said they verify the immigration status of all applicants, 30.6 percent verify applicants for financial aid, and 18.7 percent verify only those applicants seeking in-state tuition. Another 23.3 percent said they don't verify applicants' status, and 7.7 percent said "other."

Nassirian points out that very few institutions -- just 5.1 percent -- rely on national e-verification systems, like SAVE or E-Verify. "The rest do it in-house on the basis of document reviews," Nassirian said.

When asked, "What happens if you find out or have reason to believe students who claimed otherwise are undocumented?" the answers vary: Of 409 institutions that responded to this question, 23 percent said students are not allowed to enroll, 11.2 percent said that, if already enrolled, they’re asked to withdraw, 12 percent said they’re allowed to enroll without conditions, 7.8 percent said they are permitted to enroll under certain conditions, 23 percent said they’re charged higher tuition and 20.5 percent said other.

Of those colleges that knowingly admit undocumented students under certain circumstances, what are some of those circumstances? A total of 27.5 percent require graduation from an in-state high school or GED, 18.8 percent require attendance at an in-state high school, 15.3 percent require an affidavit, statement or certification of the student's intention to resolve his or her immigration status, and 9.7 percent require proof of length of residence. Nearly 29 percent said other.

A 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, affirms the right of illegal immigrants to K-12 education, but does not extend to higher education. Undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid, and how states handle their admission and enrollment in public colleges varies -- with some now barring admission of undocumented students and others pursuing the opposite tack by making lower resident tuition rates available for illegal immigrants residing in their states. As for private colleges, their policies also vary, and typically aren’t advertised.

One exception is Vassar College, which, after entertaining a proposal last fall, has made explicit its policy on undocumented student admissions. On its admissions Web site, the college states, “Vassar College will give admission applications submitted by undocumented students the same consideration given to any other applications it might receive. Undocumented students who are admitted to Vassar will be offered financial assistance based on demonstrated need following the same procedures Vassar uses to grant aid to accepted international students.”

“We wanted to clarify for students and for families and for counselors and for others what our policies were so that they wouldn’t have to guess,” explained David Borus, the dean of admission and financial aid. “As a matter of fact, at least as far as we can see from this year’s applicant pool, it has not resulted in a deluge of applications from undocumented students, but rather more of a trickle. There have been a few students who have contacted us and been given this policy and gone ahead and applied but not a great many. And I think that’s likely to be the case in the future.”

As for what other colleges are doing, “It’s not the kind of thing that colleges generally are discussing in forums, or online,” Borus said. “It’s an internal, sort of functional policy that we all have dozens of for various constituencies and various procedures. So I don’t think it’s startling that it’s not something that’s being discussed a great deal."

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