Immigrant high school students without citizenship or permanent residency in the U.S. are often told by high school counselors and colleges that they do not have many options for higher education. Known to many as Dreamers, DACA recipients, and undocumented students, it’s easy for them to slip through the cracks without getting the educational support or resources they deserve.
Many state policies block undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition — even if they completed their K-12 education there — and several states directly prohibit undocumented students from enrolling in many public universities. On top of that, undocumented students are ineligible for any federal financial aid. No Pell Grants. No student loans. No Federal work study. Despite these barriers, undocumented students are finding opportunities to pursue a college education through individual resourcefulness, ambition, targeted scholarships, and more welcoming institutional policies.
Over the past few years, Oglethorpe University has seen a steady increase in Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and undocumented enrollees. In 2019, Oglethorpe partnered with TheDream.US, a national scholarship program that helps provide access to a college education for immigrant youth who came to the country at a young age without documentation.
Undocumented students make up nearly 10% of Oglethorpe’s degree-seeking student body. As the scholar advisor to TheDream.US recipients at Oglethorpe, I regularly hear about the struggles and obstacles they are forced to face every day. Constant threats of deportation for themselves and family members, limited options for earning income, lack of accessible healthcare, and ineligibility for driver’s licenses in some states are ever-present hurdles. The future of DACA itself is uncertain as the program bounces through the courts again. With the growing likelihood that the program will be ruled unlawful and DACA renewals halted indefinitely, undocumented students will face a challenging new reality. Fully repealing DACA would mean that Georgia’s nearly 20,000 DACA recipients — who have on average lived in Georgia for almost two decades — would lose their authorization to work and the state would face an even greater job shortage than it already has, in addition to the loss of tax revenue from each of those soon-to-be unemployed Georgia residents.
Nationally, repealing DACA would take away over 600,000 members of the country’s workforce, including an estimated 181,000 DACA-eligible college students. On and off-campus jobs, paid internships, and funded research would be almost entirely off the table, post-graduation career opportunities will be limited. Undocumented high school graduates are increasingly aging out of eligibility to apply for DACA in its current state, provided the program is allowed to continue. There are an estimated 100,000 undocumented high school graduates nationally each year eager to contribute, get a degree, and join the workforce but who are being refused the ability to even apply for work authorization, and worse, face deportations from their homes to a country they may not have been to since they were children. Current undocumented college students already face a host of challenges, and continued inaction from legislatures will only make their lives more expensive and more dangerous as prices go up and immigration protections are stripped back. We can and should continue to push congress to pass legislation that opens a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and undocumented immigrants. But higher education institutions can support students of different immigration statuses regardless of our policymakers' actions.
At Oglethorpe, we have found both an opportunity and a responsibility to provide support to this growing student population. Here are some steps that individuals and institutions can take to support undocumented students.
Be informed. Seek out information and updates to better advise and support students. The U.S. immigration system is inherently complex, but experts are working tirelessly to break it down into more digestible ways. You can follow relevant social media accounts like Immigrants Rising, Informed Immigrant, National Immigration Law Center, and the President’s Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. Most importantly, find opportunities to listen to and learn from immigrant students about their challenges, needs, and goals.
Research your institution’s policies. Does your university already have resources and policies directed toward undocumented students? What can be done to actively support students of different immigration statuses at the individual, departmental, and institutional levels? How can you optimally protect students’ privacy while simultaneously providing them with needed support? You can review your state’s data and policies affecting undocumented students via the Higher Ed Immigration Portal. Work on clarifying policies and practices wherever possible with campus stakeholders (e.g., Oglethorpe University’s Undocumented Students FAQs). Push for inclusive campus scholarships targeting undocumented students as well as researching national partnerships with existing programs like TheDream.US, Golden Door Scholars, and others. Work with Admissions, Financial Aid, Counseling, Career Development, and other offices to discuss inclusive actions and support structures. See what might be implementable on your campus based on what other institutions have done.
Show support. Find opportunities to show support for undocumented students in your office, classroom, syllabus, department, social media, or website. Students may not know who to turn to for help regarding sensitive topics related to immigration status, but something as simple as a sticker or flier on your door may be enough to open a conversation. Add inclusive language to admission materials and other student-facing resources where applicable. Use phrases to show support like “regardless of immigration status,” “students with or without work authorization,” and “undocumented students (with or without DACA).”
Provide holistic student services. Target undocumented students through specific on-campus programs and services. At the campus leadership level, form a working group to establish counseling groups, address food insecurity, enhance commuter resources, provide financial advising, and tailor career guidance. Immigrant Rising has an excellent guide to building on-campus undocumented student programs. Through your Career Development and Financial Aid departments, research alternative funding options for non-employment-based experiential learning opportunities and internships. Students without work authorization could pursue unpaid internships that are funded through scholarships. Oglethorpe is piloting the new Internship Funding Program through TheDream.US and Parker Dewey, as well as offering opportunities like the Paul Hackett Internship Scholarship where any student on campus can apply for funding and credit for an unpaid internship.
Additionally, faculty and staff can advise undocumented students on alternative career pathways that they may not have considered such as independent contracting and starting a business, both of which can be done with only an individual tax ID number.
Thankfully, you do not need to start from scratch. Reach out to other institutions and organizations for advice in modeling programs after ones that have proven successful elsewhere. Despite legislative uncertainty and limited resources, undocumented students have continually found ways to pursue their academic and professional goals. Out of necessity, they’ve been forced to be resilient and resourceful. It’s time for colleges to be the same.
Peter Dye is the assistant director of community and global engagement and scholar advisor to TheDream.US scholarship recipients at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.