Report Finds Growth in Undocumented Student Population

More than 450,000 undocumented immigrant students are enrolled in higher education, according to a new estimate.

April 17, 2020
 
Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Immigration rights activists outside the Supreme Court after justices heard arguments last fall on ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Undocumented immigrant students make up about 2 percent of all students enrolled in U.S. higher education, according to a new report released Thursday. All told, researchers estimate 454,000 undocumented immigrant students are enrolled in higher education.

"Before now, there has never been a full analysis of how many undocumented students are pursuing higher education in the U.S.," states the report, which was released by New American Economy (NEA), a research and advocacy organization focused on the impact of immigration on the economy, and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, an association of college leaders that advocates for welcoming policies for immigrant and international students.

"The findings in this report show that far more undocumented students enroll in higher education than was previously thought," the authors write.

The report looks at both traditional college-age and adult immigrant learners. The analysis found that a little fewer than half -- 216,000 -- of all undocumented immigrant students are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides work authorization and protection against deportation for certain young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. President Trump has attempted to terminate the DACA program, established by former president Obama in 2012, and the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the continuation of the program this spring.

Christian Penichet-Paul, of the Presidents' Alliance, said the data underscore the need to keep DACA in place as well as the importance of policies that expand access to higher education for undocumented students. These include state-level policies extending in-state tuition rates and access to state financial aid or scholarships to undocumented students.

"Undocumented students throughout the U.S., they are an integral part of our community: 450,000 individuals who are striving to pursue higher education," said Penichet-Paul, who is directing the development of a new digital resource with data on higher education and immigration for the Presidents' Alliance. "There’s a large number of students who are striving to acquire skills who could benefit our economy in the future."

Andrew Lim, director of quantitative research for the NEA, said the approximately 450,000 undocumented students participating in higher education make up about 4.3 percent of the estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. NEA developed the methodology for the enrollment estimates, which are based on its analysis of data from the U.S. Census’s 2018 American Community Survey.

Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), an organization that researches immigration policies, said that analyses MPI has previously done found numbers roughly on par with the new estimates from the NEA. For example, an analysis MPI did of just DACA-eligible students in 2017 estimated that 241,000 DACA-eligible students were enrolled in college. And MPI has estimated that 497,000 undocumented individuals in the 18-  to 24-year-old age group are enrolled in either high school or college.

"The methodology that NEA is using to estimate who’s likely to be undocumented is quite different from our methodology, so the fact that the numbers are roughly consistent is a good sign," Batalova said.

The report from the NEA and the Presidents' Alliance provides new details on the undocumented immigrant student population based on the type of institutions they attend and their enrollment level. Here are some of the key findings:

  • About half (47 percent) of all undocumented college students were brought to the U.S. before age 12, and 39 percent arrived between the ages of 13 and 21. Fourteen percent came when they were age 22 or older.
  • A majority of undocumented immigrant students live in five states -- California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas -- and about three-quarters live in 11 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
  • Eighty-two percent of all undocumented immigrant students are enrolled in two- or four-year public colleges, while just 18 percent are enrolled in private colleges. For DACA-eligible students, the percentage enrolled in public colleges is even higher, at 84 percent. The researchers were not able to break down the number of undocumented immigrant students enrolled in public two-year versus four-year colleges, though they note that many are enrolled in community colleges.
  • While most undocumented students are enrolled at the undergraduate level, 10 percent of all undocumented immigrant students, and 13 percent of the subset who are DACA eligible, are enrolled in graduate and professional degrees.
  • Thirty-nine percent of all undocumented students pursuing graduate degrees have an undergraduate degree in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics field. Of DACA-eligible students who are pursuing an advanced degree, 43 percent have an undergraduate degree in a STEM field.
  • A little less than half (46 percent) of all undocumented students in higher education are Hispanic/Latinx, 25 percent are Asian American and Pacific Islander, 15 percent are black, 12 percent are white, and 2 percent are classified as “other.” Among DACA-eligible students, 65 percent are Latinx, 17 percent are Asian American and Pacific Islander, 7 percent are black, 10 percent are white, and 1 percent are classified as “other.”

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