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.
Reports of Indian students being turned away by customs officials and prevented from boarding U.S.-bound flights cast spotlight on two little-known California institutions with 90 percent-plus international enrollment.
A lot has been written recently about the problem of cheating among Chinese students studying here in America. Recently, The New York Times reported a complex scheme in which 15 Chinese nationals were indicted for hiring other Chinese to take the SAT and the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) in their place.
While the cheating is clearly a source of concern, let me suggest that we should be asking other, more pertinent questions, namely, what are these students doing here in the first place, and are they getting the education they have come here to receive?
The numbers tell the story. Of the more than a million international students studying in the United States, a staggering 29 percent come from China, with India placing a distant second at 14 percent. Most of the Chinese students study at the larger Research I universities, including Columbia, New York and Purdue Universities, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California.
In fact, data from the Institute for International Education show that, between 2000 and 2014, America saw a fivefold increase in the number of students coming from China. The institution where I teach, the University of Arizona, is emblematic of that trend. Of the 3,696 foreign students studying here, 1,791 enrolled from China. This is huge.
Yet, in my experience, most of these students arrive here with not enough English to succeed and scarcely enough to pass, if they do at all. Last year, all 20 of the Chinese students who took my 100-level Russian history course failed. Why? They couldn’t understand my lectures. They were unable to read or write in English. Many of my colleagues have reported a similar situation.
I reach out to those students, asking them to come and see me in office hours. I send them emails. No response. Sometimes they just disappear altogether.
And yet without enough English to succeed, or in most cases even to pass, the Chinese students keep arriving on campus. What is going on here?
For one thing, America is still the city on the hill; we remain the gold standard for foreign students seeking an education abroad. This fact explains, although it does not condone, the problem of cheating. Many Chinese students are doing whatever it takes to get accepted by an American college or university -- including not only taking special courses in China that teach them how to manipulate the TOEFL exam (one of the two required tests given to international students that measure English proficiency) but also engaging in blatantly illegal activity, such as using fraudulently obtained passports and visas.
Students from China continue to arrive in increasing numbers because that American degree is worth even more now since China instituted its one-child birth policy in the late 1970s. Singletons, as Vanessa Fong argues in Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy, are under intense pressure to become their parents’ retirement plans, to achieve elite status in education and to land high-paying jobs -- all of which will bring China in line with other first world countries. The pressure on these students is enormous. And, in a notable shift, this now applies equally to boys and girls.
“Everything is about grades. It’s in my blood,” a young female Chinese student who was retaking my course told me. “My parents expect me to do this.”
But am I, as a professor who teaches such students, giving them the education they have come here to get? For me, that question is getting harder and harder to answer in the affirmative.
As a faculty member at a large state university, I feel the diminishing quality of the education that I am able to provide as my class sizes increase and state funding for education is constantly cut. The size of many of my classes prohibits any kind of sustained contact with my students. And while I regularly teach upward of 200 students per course each semester, many of my colleagues teach anywhere from 500 to 1,000.
In Arizona alone, we currently have 15,500 foreign students at the various colleges and universities. Significantly, most of them are self-paying. Their contribution to our state economy in Arizona through tuition and living expenses is more than $400 million, certainly a nontrivial amount.
The fact is that the city on the hill is starved for revenue. Arizona topped Louisiana as the state with the greatest drop in spending on higher education per student between 2008 and 2014. My university responded by increasing tuition and recruiting students more aggressively, not only domestically but also abroad. Currently, we are facing another $25 million in budget cuts. The bulk of those cuts, $15 million, will come from academic programs.
So it seems we have something of a Faustian bargain: the Chinese students need us for the elite status, the high-paying jobs and the lifestyle they so desperately want back home. We need them to help us keep financially afloat.
For all the talk about building bridges and bringing global perspective to the classroom, the bottom line here in America is that large public universities such as my own need these students for the tuition dollars they provide. Many of the services and programs on my campus are, in fact, supported by non-U.S. tuition.
The solutions to these problems must come from both sides.
For our part, in the short term, our colleges and universities must work with China to ensure that the students who come here are legitimate and able to handle college-level work in English, either before or after they arrive. While my own university has not implemented any campuswide English language requirements, as institutions like the University of Denver have, international students who are struggling with English are urged to enroll in our Center for English as a Second Language (CESL). Its bridge program enables students to be mainstreamed gradually into regular university classes. Enrollment in CESL is at the students’ own discretion, however, and less than a third of the students currently enrolled in the CESL program come from China.
Ultimately, we need to be sure that we are providing the level of education that we in America have long been known for. Starving our institutions of revenue ultimately diminishes our ability to educate our students, regardless of their country of origin.
A form of educational imperialism will remain in place as long as countries such as China ascribe to the belief that an American degree can provide them with the cultural capital they need to succeed and as long as our institutions are dependent on the revenue brought in by foreign students. But as the dream of an American education continues to hold sway throughout the world, those of us who work in the academy worry increasingly over the quality our sought-after education is supposed to provide.
Adele Barker is a professor of Russian and Slavic at the University of Arizona and was a public voices fellow in 2014-2015 with the OpEd Project, which works to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas in the world.