Roughly 98,000 undocumented students graduate from high school in the U.S. every year, according to recent estimates by the Migration Policy Institute. These students face a number of barriers to postsecondary education.
Due to federal regulations they are ineligible for federal financial aid, including Pell and other grants, work-study and subsidized loans. Even with the rescinding of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in September 2017, nationwide injunctions have allowed for DACA renewals to continue. However, most recent high school graduates do not have access to DACA, as the government stopped accepting new applications. This situation greatly affects the post-high school prospects of recent undocumented high school graduates.
An increasing number of states and postsecondary systems have extended access to in-state tuition and state financial aid to undocumented students. But in several states that access is limited to DACA recipients or to only a few institutions. Alabama and South Carolina go as far as to prohibit undocumented students who do not hold DACA status from enrolling in public postsecondary institutions altogether.
With the future of DACA deeply uncertain, these factors hamper college attendance for undocumented students. And the barriers underscore the urgency to decouple DACA status from any program eligibility.
Yet an opportunity to make college more affordable for these students has emerged with the advent of statewide college promise programs. As of the 2018-19 academic year, 19 states offered 21 statewide promise programs.
Research for Action has recently completed a comprehensive examination of these programs, which includes statewide policy scans as well as case studies in four states. Three of these states -- Delaware, Nevada and Oregon -- are among five nationally that are using promise programs to increase access to college for undocumented students, regardless of DACA status. While Nevada and Delaware have not enacted statewide legislation extending in-state tuition to all undocumented students, some individual public institutions in the two states have offered these students both in-state tuition rates and financial aid.
These states provide important lessons for policy makers in other states to consider as they determine how best to maintain and extend access to college for undocumented students.
Delaware, Nevada, New York, Oregon and Washington allow undocumented students, regardless of DACA status, to complete alternative financial aid applications and fulfill a series of requirements in order to access promise dollars. In Oregon, undocumented students also are eligible for the state need-based grant. Nevada’s state-funded financial aid opportunities for undocumented students were limited to its merit aid program until the Nevada Promise was adjusted to include undocumented students as an eligible population, thus becoming the state’s main financial aid program supporting that student population.
But even states that serve all undocumented students through their promise programs have more work to do. For example, access to accurate information on whether promise programs are available for undocumented students is spotty in several of our case-study states. This is because some states rely on high school counselors to ensure that students and their families are aware of promise programs. This approach leads to inconsistent and inaccurate information for all students, but it is particularly problematic for undocumented students, whose eligibility requirements can be more complicated.
Oregon, for example, is acting on this informational challenge. The Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission publishes numerous materials on their website in both English and Spanish and has developed a communications tool kit for Oregon Promise advocates in their state.
In addition, the small number of statewide promise programs that provide student supports such as mentoring and first-year experiences do not address challenges specifically related to immigration. In fact, such services are rare in most states. California is an outlier in this respect -- its public colleges and universities offer a range of supports to undocumented students such as dream resource centers, free legal services and ally trainings. States that wish to make promise programs available to these students should consider including such elements to better meet their unique needs.
Although the Trump administration’s decision to rescind DACA in September of 2017 was later challenged in the courts, there is a strong likelihood that DACA’s rescindment will be affirmed this year by the Supreme Court. As a result, the lives of undocumented students are likely to become even more constrained.
While many institutions and their leaders are committed to supporting DACA recipients and undocumented students on their campuses, as evidenced by the work and rapid growth of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration since its launch two years ago, far more needs to be done. In the absence of federal support, statewide promise programs, especially those that do not couple DACA status with program eligibility, can maintain access to postsecondary education for all undocumented students by providing an alternative source of financial aid and student supports.