THE BLOG

Denying Higher Education to Undocumented Students is a Roadblock to Future Economic Growth

03/31/2015 09:17 am ET | Updated May 31, 2015
John Giustina via Getty Images

Today, a college degree is one of the surest ways to economic opportunity, but it has also never been more expensive. Earlier this year, President Obama announced "America's College Promise", a proposal that would make two years of community college free for anyone who's willing to work for it. On the heels of that announcement, the president recently called for a new "Student Aid Bill of Rights" to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality and affordable education.

While the president's proposals are significant strides in making a college education attainable to more students, there are still millions of undocumented students who face a complex set of policies that too often prevent them from accessing and completing a postsecondary education.

In 1982, the Supreme Court decided that all students, regardless of their immigration status, were guaranteed a K-12 education. But the Court's decision did not extend to higher education. This has led to a situation where every year, of the at least 122,600 undocumented seniors in the country's high schools, only around 2,000 are expected to graduate with a college degree.

This low rate of higher education completion comes from a series of barriers that confront undocumented students at almost every step of the college process, including when the tuition bill arrives -- a recent report from UCLA found that 74 percent of undocumented students that left school reported doing so because of financial difficulties.

Unlike their peers, undocumented students cannot qualify for any federal financial aid. These programs, while imperfect, allow millions of students across the country to afford the high and rising cost of tuition.

I am one of these students: although I am not undocumented, my parents were undocumented for most of my life, a fact that became especially clear to me when my father was deported. Unlike my undocumented friends, however, I had full access to all forms of federal financial aid that helped me pay for a high quality education as a first-generation, low-income student.

I have seen too many of my close friends realize that the mantra "work hard, study, and get into college" was not true for them. But undocumented students are fighting back. Thanks in large part to undocumented-youth activism, at least 18 states have provisions that allow undocumented students to access in-state tuition. Furthermore, four states offer state-funded financial aid.

Texas was the first state to implement this type of legislation, passing the first-ever state DREAM Act under a Republican governor and legislature to address some of the cost barriers undocumented students face. The results have been clear: since 2007 the number of undocumented students in Texas more than doubled to over 20,000.

Despite this success, Texas legislators, following a conservative wave election, are now looking to overturn this law. Repealing the Texas DREAM Act would be a tremendous loss to thousands of undocumented young people in the state and would buck the national trend. This year alone, at least nine states have introduced legislation to expand access to higher education for undocumented students, yet nine states have restrictive laws ranging from banning in-state tuition to complete bans on enrollment.

Many conservative lawmakers argue that it would be unfair to allow undocumented students access to financial aid, or even enroll in public colleges and universities. This argument not only disregards the moral crisis of denying an education to students, but also ignores the reality that, by 2020, our economy will face a shortage of 5 million educated workers. Instead of providing a path forward to hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people -- many of whom now have an opportunity to receive work permits through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program -- and the economy, conservative lawmakers are creating a roadblock to success.

Federal and state governments, higher education advocacy organizations, and colleges and universities each have their respective roles in ensuring all students have access to a high-quality and affordable education, including undocumented students. With a clear and unified voice, we can make clear that our higher education system cannot continue to exclude students simply based on their immigration status. Together, we must work to ensure that the promise of a college degree is also available to undocumented students.

Zenen Jaimes Pérez is the Senior Policy Analyst for Generation Progress, the youth-engagement arm of the Center for American Progress.​​