DREAMers Accessing the American Dream: Their Academic and Civic Engagement Outcomes

We are called DREAMers, but our parents dreamed long before we did of a better future.1

Countless mothers and fathers have left behind familiar landscapes, beloved family and friends, and the comfort of certainty to give their children lives better than their own. It’s no coincidence that many of these parents chose as their new home the United States of America, a country founded on the promise of public education. “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and be willing to bear the expenses of it,” John Adams once pronounced.2 “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people,” Thomas Jefferson agreed, as “they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”3 Shared knowledge and common ideals have allowed our nation of immigrants to rise together.

But more than two hundred years after our country’s birth, we continue to debate exactly who this “whole mass of the people” should include. Last fall, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has allowed approximately eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants to live, learn, and work in America, would be terminated.4 DACA students—brought here by their parents as children—now face expulsion not only from our public schools and universities, but from our country’s long-standing definition of what makes America “whole.”

The proud home to an estimated one thousand undocumented students, California State University–Fullerton was one of the first campuses in California to establish a center to embrace and support undocumented students. To better serve these students—known as DREAMers—we have conducted research on their educational experiences and attainment. Our findings? That by investing in DREAMers and championing “the education of the whole people,” Cal State Fullerton is on to something.

Access to education

More than thirty-five years ago, in Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court confirmed that “unprotected immigrants” were entitled to a public K–12 education under the Fourteenth Amendment. The State of California has gone even further, steadily enacting protections and financial relief to ensure undocumented students’ access to higher education. The 1982 “Leticia A” court ruling, for instance, named for a California State University (CSU) student, allowed the University of California (UC) and CSU systems to consider undocumented students as residents, qualifying for both in-state tuition and state financial aid, until its repeal in 1991.5

After the federal Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 placed restrictions on states’ residency requirements and in-state tuition benefits,6 California was one of several states to enact legislation restoring these benefits. In 2001, Governor Gray Davis approved California’s Assembly Bill 540 (AB 540), which allows undocumented students who meet specific criteria to pay in-state tuition at any of California’s higher education institutions, including the UC and CSU systems and California community colleges.7 California remains one of several states to retain such in-state tuition-eligibility provisions.8

Two additional state laws were enacted in 2011 to build upon AB 540. Called the California Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, they allow college students who were brought to the United States without an immigration status—and who have attended school on a regular basis and otherwise meet in-state tuition and grade point average (GPA) requirements—to apply for non-state-funded scholarships (AB 130) and state-funded financial aid (AB 131).9

Undocumented students received another boost in 2012 with the creation of DACA. Implemented by executive order by President Barack Obama, the policy provided temporary protection from deportation for immigrants brought to the United States as children in the form of renewable two-year permits. But in June 2017, a group of state officials threatened a federal lawsuit over DACA’s constitutionality.10 In September 2017, US Attorney General Sessions announced that new DACA applications would no longer be accepted, and the legal status for those currently in the program, including permits to work and attend school, would begin expiring in March 2018.11 (In January 2018, a federal judge temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s efforts to end DACA and ordered the federal government to resume accepting DACA renewal applications, but no new DACA applications are being accepted as of this writing.)12

If the DACA rescission holds, 2.1 million potential DACA beneficiaries, including the sixty-five thousand undocumented students who graduate from high school and ten thousand who graduate from college every year,13 stand squarely in the path of a life-changing tidal wave. Of the approximately eight hundred thousand children, teens, and young adults who have received DACA status nationwide, 242,339 live in California.14 An estimated 72,300 undocumented students are enrolled in California’s public colleges and universities—including 60,000 at community colleges, 8,300 in the CSU system, and 4,000 in the UC system—and half of these students likely have DACA protection now.15

Studies have shown that DACA has improved the lives of its recipients and their families, ensuring stability and upward mobility while extending benefits to our communities and nation. In August 2017, in the largest study to date of DACA recipients, researchers analyzed the economic, employment, educational, and societal experiences of 3,063 respondents from forty-six states and the District of Columbia. Results showed that DACA recipients have continued to make positive contributions to the economy, boosting tax revenue and spurring economic growth that benefits all Americans. Ninety-seven percent of respondents were currently employed or enrolled in school.16

Titan Dreamers

During fall 2017, approximately one thousand undocumented AB 540 students called Cal State Fullerton home. Because of its sizeable undocumented population and the university’s longstanding commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, Cal State Fullerton became, in 2014, the first campus in the CSU system—and one of the first campuses in the country—to establish a physical space to support undocumented students.17 Housed within the Diversity Initiatives and Resource Centers department in the Division of Student Affairs, the Titan Dreamers Resource Center (TDRC) provides undocumented students with a home away from home, in which they can meet peers and build a sense of belonging and community.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, undocumented students face a tough uphill climb to their college degrees. Usually the first in their families to attend college, undocumented students are less likely to be academically prepared or to have a basic understanding of the college experience. They are ineligible for federal financial aid and other federally funded benefits, may lack family income and support, often experience guilt and shame for attending college, and work more hours per week than their peers while having less disposable income. Undocumented students are typically less likely to engage in extracurricular activities on campus and are more likely to take a leave of absence from college. All the while, undocumented students may face a constant fear of deportation—for themselves or family members.18

To help eliminate these obstacles, Cal State Fullerton’s TDRC provides workshops and programs that assist and support undocumented students to ensure they enjoy a full and equitable college experience. Programs and services include assistance with the AB 540/2000 Affidavit Form; California DREAM Act application workshops, in which students receive one-on-one support when applying for state and institutional financial aid; immigration legal clinics, where students and their family members receive pro bono legal assistance from reputable immigration attorneys to explore pathways to residency; identity empowerment workshops; counseling and psychological services; and many other offerings.

As researcher William Perez has noted, “for college-going undocumented students, support networks help them navigate the process of higher education.” Further, support provided to undocumented students by faculty and staff “plays a key role in maintaining high levels of optimism and perseverance.”19 Supporting undocumented students must remain an institutional responsibility and priority. For this reason, Cal State Fullerton has found that ally training is of paramount importance. By training faculty and staff on the unique experiences and needs of our DREAMers, the TDRC helps ensure that undocumented students receive individualized support not only in the classroom, but from departments and programs across campus.

A study of support

In 2017, Cal State Fullerton set out to measure the results of our campus-wide investment in undocumented students by examining whether the educational experiences and attainment of DREAMers—despite the unique obstacles they face—are comparable to those of their counterparts. In our study, we defined a DREAMer as an undocumented student who had AB 540 status. Our data came from first-year students and seniors who responded to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) during spring 2014 or 2016. The total sample included 5,328 students: 1,765 first-year students (including 57 undocumented AB 540 students) and 3,563 seniors (including 77 undocumented AB 540 students).

Using NSSE data, we compared DREAMers and non-DREAMers on the number of times they participated in high-impact practices such as service learning and research (table 1)20 and on engagement indicators such as higher-order learning and civic engagement (table 2).21 We ran a series of independent-sample t-tests and chi-square analyses for the engagement indicators and for participation in high-impact practices. Next, we ran multiple regression analyses with college GPA as a dependent variable. Independent variables included DREAMer status, high school GPA, SAT score, gender, Pell recipient status, ethnicity, first-generation status, engagement indicators (grouped according to themes specified by NSSE, as shown in table 2), and participation in high-impact practices.


We conducted separate analyses for first-year students and seniors. Because NSSE was administered to first-year students and seniors in 2014 and 2016, and the TDRC was founded in 2014, we expected that first-year DREAMers would have benefited more strongly from TDRC services than senior DREAMers. Therefore, we hypothesized that the DREAMers would score higher on various engagement indicators and participation in high-impact practices than non-DREAMers among first-time first-year students but not among seniors.

Engagement Indicators and Example Survey Items


Concerning engagement indicators among seniors, we found that DREAMers scored significantly higher than non-DREAMers on self-reported higher-order learning (15 percentage difference), quantitative reasoning (14 percentage difference), and civic engagement (8 percentage difference). Among first-year students, we found that DREAMers scored higher than non-DREAMers on self-reported higher-order learning (11 percentage difference), reflective and integrative learning (12 percentage difference), student-faculty interaction (35 percentage difference), effective teaching practices (10 percentage difference), supportive environment (14 percentage difference), and civic engagement (16 percentage difference). Similarly, we found that while senior DREAMers were no more likely than non-DREAMers to participate in high-impact practices, first-year DREAMers were more likely to participate in research with faculty (7 percent participated) and service learning (17 percent participated) versus first-year non-DREAMers (2 percent and 8 percent participated, respectively).

Finally, using multiple regression analysis to test whether DREAMer status and other factors significantly predicted student GPA, we found that the predictors collectively explained 25 percent of GPA variance among first-year students and 15 percent among seniors. Table 3 summarizes the results. First-year GPAs were significantly predicted by gender, underrepresented ethnicity, major, SAT, and high school GPA; senior GPAs were significantly predicted by underrepresented ethnicity, on-campus employment, major, high-impact practices, and campus environment. Most importantly, however, DREAMer status was not significantly associated with GPA after controlling for demographic and academic factors.



In short, our study found that Cal State Fullerton’s DREAMers have achieved GPAs comparable to those of their non-DREAMer peers when controlling for academic preparation and demographic factors. Consistent with our hypothesis, first-year DREAMers, who matriculated after the TDRC was founded in 2014, scored higher than non-DREAMer peers on six of eleven NSSE engagement indicators; such striking differences were not observed among seniors. Among both first-year students and seniors, however, DREAMers consistently outpaced non-DREAMer peers on higher-order learning and civic engagement. First-year DREAMers especially were more likely to engage in service learning and to participate in research projects with faculty members. Each of these findings underscores the rewards of educating and informing “the whole mass of the people,” as our nation’s founders prescribed.

In considering the roots of these findings, we can’t ignore the cultural experiences of our DREAMers who, without the clear pathways, certainty, and safety nets enjoyed by non-DREAMers, have had to show uncommon initiative and resourcefulness in carving out their own futures. We’ve found Cal State Fullerton DREAMers to be thoroughly invested, academically committed, and curious students. Although focused follow-up studies are needed to track the long-term impact of the TDRC, survey results have given us a glimpse of areas to assess further as well as an opportunity to pinpoint impacts, eliminate support gaps, and identify successful programs and services for continued development.

As federal immigration law changes, so too must higher education’s response as we seek innovative ways to support and nurture undocumented students. As higher education professionals, it is our responsibility to ensure—just as their parents have—that undocumented students equitably enjoy the opportunities and experiences that are the hallmarks of a college education. Continued access, campus support, and focused study into the unique needs, strengths, and contributions of our undocumented families are vital—so that we may all continue to rise together.


  1. Ms. Guzman, “I’m a Dreamer. I’d Have Nothing If It Weren’t for DACA,” Fortune, September 21, 2017, http://fortune.com/2017/09/21/daca-dreamer-immigration/.
  2. John Adams, “To John Jebb,” September 10, 1785, The Works of John Adams: Second President of the United States (Boston: Little, Brown, 1854), 540.
  3. Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Himself: The Personal Narrative of a Many-Sided American, ed. Bernard Mayo (1942; repr., Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1970), 145.
  4. Gustavo López and Jens Manuel Krogstad, “Key Facts about Unauthorized Immigrants Enrolled in DACA,” FactTank: News in the Numbers, September 25, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/25/key-facts-about-unauthor....
  5. William A. Kaplin and Barbara A. Lee, The Law of Higher Education: A Comprehensive Guide to Legal Implications of Administrative Decision Making, 5th ed., 2 vols. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013).
  6. National Conference of State Legislators, “In-State Tuition and Unauthorized Immigrant Students,” February 19, 2014, http://www.ncsl.org/research/immigration/in-state-tuition-and-unauthoriz....
  7. Assembly Bill No. 540, Chapter 814, California Legislative Information, October 12, 2001, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=20....
  8. Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, Public Law 104–208, Stat. 110, section 3009-546 (1996), https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-110/pdf/STATUTE-110-Pg3009.pdf.
  9. Assembly Bill No. 130, California Legislative Information, July 25, 2011, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201... Assembly Bill No. 131, California Legislative Information, October 8, 2011, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201....
  10. Alessia Huaman, “A Timeline on DACA,” Odyssey, September 7, 2017, https://www.theodysseyonline.com/timeline-daca.
  11. Joanna Walters, “What Is Daca and Who Are the Dreamers?,” The Guardian, September 14, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/04/donald-trump-what-is-dac....
  12. Ariane de Vogue, Dan Berman, and Madison Park, “Judge Blocks Trump Administration Plan to Roll Back DACA,” CNN Politics, January 10, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/09/politics/california-judge-daca-applicatio....
  13. Jerome Dineen, “If Trump Ends DACA, Here’s How Many Students Could Be Affected,” USA Today College, February 8, 2017, http://college.usatoday.com/2017/02/08/if-trump-ends-daca-heres-how-many....
  14. Migration Policy Institute, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Data Tools,” accessed March 15, 2018, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/deferred-action-childh...
  15. Larry Gordon, “Understanding DACA and Education in California: A Quick Guide,” EdSource, September 5, 2017, https://edsource.org/2017/understanding-daca-and-education-in-california....
  16. Tom K. Wong, Greisa Martinez Rosas, Adam Luna, Henry Manning, Adrian Reyna, Patrick O’Shea, Tom Jawetz, and Philip E. Wolgin, “DACA Recipients’ Economic and Educational Gains Continue to Grow,” Center for American Progress, August 28, 2017, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/news/2017/08/28/4379...
  17. “History: Titan Dreamers Resource Center,” California State University–Fullerton, accessed March 15, 2018, http://www.fullerton.edu/tdrc/history/history.php.
  18. Edith Fernández and Tania Wilcox, “Supporting Undocumented Students,” National Association for College Admission Counseling, accessed March 15, 2018, https://www.nacacnet.org/globalassets/documents/professional-development....
  19. William Perez, “Undocumented Students in Higher Education,” Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education, June 14, 2012, https://www.academia.edu/1980156/Undocumented_Students_in_Higher_Educati....
  20. George D. Kuh defines and discusses high-impact practices in High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008). For an updated list of high-impact practices, see https://www.aacu.org/leap/hips.
  21. “NSSE Engagement Indicators,” National Survey of Student Engagement, accessed March 19, 2018, http://nsse.indiana.edu/html/engagement_indicators.cfm. In addition to measuring students’ engagement using NSSE’s engagement indicators, we measured civic engagement using a composite of four items from NSSE’s Perceived Gain scale, which measures student perceptions of how much their college experiences contributed to their skills and personal development. These four items included working effectively with others, understanding people of other backgrounds, being an informed and active citizen, and developing or clarifying a personal code of values and ethics.

To respond to this article, email liberaled@aacu.org with the authors’ names on the subject line

YUSUKE KUROKI is research analyst at California State University–Fullerton. HENOC PRECIADO is former coordinator of the Titan Dreamers Resource Center at California State University–Fullerton and current director of the Glazer Family Dreamers Resource Center at California State University–Los Angeles. The authors would like to thank Karyn Scissum Gunn, Sunny Moon, and Mary Ann Villarreal for their contributions to this article, which draws on data presented at the 2018 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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