As students prepare to return to school for the coming academic year, there are 65,000 high school seniors who lack a clear path to college because they are undocumented. While undocumented students have access to K-12 public education, their options abruptly become scarce when they turn 18: in addition to the barriers that many low-income students face, these students must navigate a higher education system that excludes them, either explicitly or de facto.
One glaring obstacle is that undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid. Another is that access to public institutions, usually the most affordable option, varies by state. While some states offer resident tuition and state financial aid, others prohibit undocumented students from enrolling altogether. Other states fall in the middle of the spectrum, providing in-state rates to students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals at some public universities. (A federal administrative policy implemented in 2012, DACA provides Social Security Numbers and the eligibility to work and drive to individuals who arrived in the United States as children and meet certain age and education requirements. However, it does not provide a path to citizenship. Since its implementation, roughly 700,000 undocumented youth and young adults have received DACA status.)
Given this landscape, private colleges and universities have an opportunity to be key players in promoting higher education access for undocumented students nationwide. Most, though not all, selective private institutions already accept undocumented or “DACAmented” students, but as of now, information and resources for undocumented applicants are difficult to find. So difficult, in fact, that students have taken the issue into their own hands: a group of undergraduates at Harvard University started a nonprofit, Higher Dreams, to serve as a “comprehensive resource” for undocumented applicants interested in applying to private colleges and universities. Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca, a student from California, created the DREAMer’s Roadmap app to help undocumented students find scholarships for college.
Meanwhile, institutions themselves should do their part and take a far more deliberate approach: there is a great difference between accepting students and making college truly accessible. If they are serious about their stated commitments to access, opportunity, and diversity, they should recognize their potential to make a difference. They should anticipate and welcome applications from undocumented students, actively make an effort to understand their circumstances and specific needs, and adopt policies that follow through on meeting those needs.
Colleges can take several steps. First, they can educate admissions staff so that potential applicants who are undocumented will receive accurate information. Better yet, they can hire or designate a staff person to specialize in working with undocumented students. Unfortunately, that is not the norm; many admissions personnel, though well meaning, are not equipped to answer questions from undocumented applicants. Staff education is a basic and important place to start.
Another key to increasing access is changing admissions and financial-aid policies to reflect the reality of undocumented students’ lives. Many independent colleges count them as international applicants -- a highly competitive pool. Accepted students are often charged international tuition rates, which are prohibitively high even for middle-income families, and they are only eligible for competitive merit scholarships. Implicit in this policy is the idea that undocumented students are more aptly compared to international students than to American citizens, which is patently inaccurate. Having attended American high schools and spent a significant, formative part of their lives in the United States, they should be considered within that context, not judged alongside international applicants whose experiences are virtually incomparable.
Experiential similarities and moral arguments aside, students with DACA work and have Social Security numbers -- like their American peers, and unlike international students. With or without DACA, they pay taxes. The only practical difference between them and their citizen peers, then, from an admissions perspective, is their lack of access to federal aid or loans. Admissions and financial-aid policies should reflect that reality and consider undocumented students as domestic applicants, eligible for aid based on demonstrated need.
Finally, institutions should publicize their commitment to working with undocumented students, who too often go unacknowledged. If a college or university already accepts undocumented students, it should shift from a don’t ask, don’t tell mentality to one of active inclusion. Some institutions have dedicated admissions pages specifically for undocumented students that include FAQs, resources and contacts. Publicizing such information is a small but meaningful act: it provides targeted support, which undocumented students so rarely get, and makes a statement that they are truly welcome.
In essence, it is simply not enough for colleges and universities to accept undocumented students tacitly and passively. It is not enough to accept undocumented students but then charge exorbitant tuition. If an institution welcomes undocumented students in principle by allowing them to apply, then those students deserve the same level of targeted support that American citizens receive when it comes to the application process and financial aid -- not to mention student services once in college.
Some institutions are already leading the way. Oberlin College, for example, encourages undocumented students to apply, counts them as domestic applicants and provides need-based aid. Emory University recently adopted the same policy for students with DACA. (The state of Georgia, meanwhile, legally blocks undocumented students from enrolling in its top five state schools, so Emory has made a statement by providing an alternative option.) Tufts University “proactively and openly” recruits and provides aid for undocumented students, with or without DACA, and Swarthmore College rolled out a similar policy this spring, arguing that as a campus that values “different viewpoints, identities and histories among our students,” it invites all students, regardless of citizenship status, to apply.
The intentional nature of these policies and the tangible changes to the institutions’ recruitment and financial-aid strategies are what make their statements more than just lip service. Many more institutions should follow suit.
Lily McKeage is a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and program director at YES Scholars in New York City.
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