Diversity and Democracy

Extending Our Investments: Higher Education Access for Undocumented Students

I first met Jacqueline, an outstanding student, three years ago. Brought to the United States by her parents at age two, she has no memories of Mexico, where she was born. Jacqueline is undocumented. Her mother is a permanent resident, while her father's application for residency was recently denied. Her father has a sixth-grade education; her mother earned her GED after several years in the United States. Since coming to the United States, Jacqueline, her sister, and her parents have lived in a tiny guesthouse on her aunt's residence while Jacqueline and her sister attended American schools.

Image courtesy of Claremont Graduate University
Image courtesy of Claremont Graduate University

As early as elementary school, Jacqueline excelled in academics and received numerous awards, particularly in math, her favorite subject. In elementary school, she developed an interest in designing and flying airplanes. She was identified as "gifted" in sixth grade and subsequently enrolled in GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) and honors classes. In middle school, she participated in various academic competitions. In high school, she was involved in student council, the math club, and the soccer team. Her father forbade her from getting a job because he wanted her to focus on academics. She graduated in the top 15 percent of her class. 

In the eleventh grade, Jacqueline learned that her undocumented status would limit her higher education goals. Because her dream is to work as a NASA engineer, she had always wanted to attend a nearby university with a nationally recognized aerospace engineering program. But since she is ineligible for financial aid, her teachers advised her to enroll in a more affordable community college. Making the best of her circumstances, Jacqueline became involved in her school's honors program and was admitted to the National Community College Honor Society. During her first year in college, she earned a 4.0 GPA, assumed leadership in a student group that advocates for undocumented students, and volunteered at a local elementary school. But despite her many achievements, Jacqueline cannot legally work in the United States, and she worries about not being able to use her degree after she graduates. 

Jacqueline's story broadly illustrates undocumented students' accomplishments as well as their frustrations and anguish. These students may dedicate themselves to pursuing college degrees only to find their dreams shattered. Jacqueline is one of sixty-five thousand undocumented students who graduate from high school every year who are not eligible to work legally and do not qualify for financial aid to attend college (Passel 2006).

Historical Context

During the last two decades, the United States has undergone a dramatic demographic transformation due to immigration. In 1990, the foreign-born population was less than 20 million; by 2007, it had nearly doubled to 38 million. This change has affected school districts across the nation, where immigrant children represent 20 percent of students and are expected to be 30 percent by 2015 (Fix and Passel 2003).

Among this growing population are 12 million individuals who reside in the United States without legal authorization. Failed immigration policies as well as economic factors have played a central role in undocumented population growth (Passel 2006). California is home to the most undocumented residents, with an estimated 2.8 million, followed by Texas with nearly 1.4 million and Florida with 850,000 (Hoefer, Rytina, and Campbell 2006). These numbers include approximately 3.1 million youths under age twenty-four, about one-fourth of the total undocumented population (Hoefer, Rytina, and Baker 2009). Many of these young people were brought to the United States by their parents when they were very young.

Before 1982, school districts across the country tried to bar undocumented children from attending public schools. But in 1982, the Supreme Court case Plyer v. Doe gave undocumented students access to education. The court determined that denying education to undocumented children would impose a lifetime of hardship on them. The court further stated that educating all children regardless of their immigration status is essential for creating individuals who can function in society and contribute to the United States' development.

Ways to Support Undocumented Students

Despite nonpartisan collaborations across the social and political spectrum, efforts to support college-going undocumented students are still needed. Everyone can play a role in supporting undocumented students through the following activities:

  • Support grassroots and nonprofit organizations that work on behalf of immigrants by donating time or money. Many of these groups have Facebook and MySpace pages that will help you get involved.
  • Educate your friends, relatives, and coworkers about efforts in your state or region.
  • Reach out to elected state and federal officials. Call and e-mail your representatives and let them know your views on the DREAM Act, currently being considered in Congress.

—William Perez

Presently, court-mandated access to education ends when undocumented students graduate from high school. Upon graduation, higher education becomes an elusive dream for these young adults despite extensive prior public investment in them. An analysis of college attendance finds that among unauthorized youths under age twenty-four who have graduated from high school, 49 percent are in college or have attended college. The comparable figure for residents born in the United States is 71 percent (Passel and Cohn 2009).

Despite the efforts of immigrant advocates and reform proponents, the federal government has not been able to pass legislation to address undocumented students' difficult circumstances. In 2001, Congress introduced a bill to benefit undocumented students who moved to the United States before age sixteen, have lived here continuously for at least five years, and have a U.S. high school diploma. This bill is now known as the Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. If passed, the DREAM Act would enable high school graduates to apply for conditional status, which would authorize up to six years of legal residence. During the six-year period, a graduate would be required to attend and complete college or serve in the U.S. military for at least two years. Upon meeting these requirements and completing the six-year period, she or he would be granted permanent residency (Yates 2004; National Immigration Law Center 2005). As of 2009, however, the DREAM Act has not been passed, and undocumented students remain in limbo.

Also beginning in 2001, legislatures in Texas, followed by California, Utah, New York, Washington, Illinois, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and New Mexico passed legislation making undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition rates. Three states (Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma) went a step further and made undocumented students eligible for state financial aid grants. But undocumented immigrants in these states are still not able to work legally, even if they earn college degrees.

The process set in motion through the 1982 federal ruling continues to fuel debates on state policies around postsecondary admission, tuition, and financial aid for undocumented students. Meanwhile, a generation of undocumented students has come of age, and these students are seeking the next level of educational opportunity.

Research Study

I began studying undocumented students in 2006 to better understand the issues surrounding their participation in higher education and to generate data to inform policy discussions. I collected survey and interview data from undocumented students across the United States. Although I expected these students to report the usual accomplishments and activities that most students list on their college applications, I did not expect the high levels of community service and volunteering that undocumented students reported. These findings were particularly remarkable because immigrant youth are so marginalized in our society. They have almost no legal rights, can be deported at any time, are not eligible for government services, cannot legally work, and most frustrating of all, are not eligible for educational grants or loans. Still, they feel compelled to contribute to their communities.

I discovered that as a group, college-eligible undocumented students demonstrated academic achievement, leadership, and civic engagement patterns that often exceeded those of their U.S.-citizen counterparts. Over 90 percent reported volunteer and community-service participation, and 95 percent had participated in extracurricular activities. In those activities, 78 percent held a leadership position such as president of a club or captain of a sports team. In addition, despite having various responsibilities at home such as caring for younger siblings, these students worked an average of thirteen hours per week during high school and thirty hours per week during college. Yet they still earned high marks in academically demanding courses, and 37 percent had been identified as gifted. These students remain without legal status despite prior public investment in their educations; high levels of achievement, community service, and leadership experience; and a deep sense of commitment to American society. They are thus ineligible for most types of assistance to attend college, even though over 90 percent of students we surveyed aspire to obtain a master's degree or higher. If these qualifications do not warrant official recognition of their "Americanness," then what does?

I examine this issue in a new book titled We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream (2009). This book compiles case studies of sixteen currently undocumented students and four others who were undocumented for many years before legalizing their status. Among these students are valedictorians, honors students, and other exceptional leaders. In their own words, they reflect on their hardships, accomplishments, dreams, ambitions, and desire to be accepted as Americans. In most cases, their parents brought them to this country as infants. For many, the United States is the only home they know. They have grown up here, their dominant language is English, and they strongly identify as Americans, yet they are unable to pursue higher education despite remarkable academic qualifications. These students exhibit the same tenacious optimism, drive, and perseverance that fueled their parents' desire to pursue better futures in the United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court has mandated that undocumented children be accepted as students, but current immigration policy prevents their being accepted as citizens. The case studies in We ARE Americans suggest that the lack of access to citizenship and higher education for high-achieving undocumented immigrant students represents an ongoing loss of intellectual and civic talent to American society. Their stories highlight deep flaws of failed immigration and education policies and the subsequent impact on families and communities.

Based on my research, I argue that undocumented students' civic and academic dedication warrants official government recognition. The federal government can support and encourage civic commitments by rewarding model behavior with legislation that provides a path to legalization. Over the last decade, citizenship policy has emerged as an increasingly important topic of concern for policy makers, scholars, the media, and immigrant communities. Questions of citizenship have become a major source of political controversy in debates about topics ranging from welfare rights to multiculturalism. The increase of scholarly literature on citizenship and immigrant integration emanating from the academy in recent years suggests that a widespread reevaluation of citizenship questions has already begun.

In the past several decades, the United States and other nations have gradually extended a growing menu of rights and benefits traditionally associated with formal citizenship to different groups, in particular to long-term foreign residents. Given the educational, social, and economic investment American society has made in undocumented students, and the contributions these students have made to American society's civic well-being, I argue that ultimately it is in the best interest of the United States to provide full citizenship privileges to students. As the Supreme Court hinted twenty-seven years ago in Plyer v. Doe, the country should get a return on its investment in students rather than limiting their social and economic contributions.


Fix, M., and J. S. Passel. 2003. U.S. Immigration: Trends and implications for schools. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Hoefer, M., N. Rytina, and C. Campbell. 2006. Estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population residing in the United States: January 2005. Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics.

Hoefer, M., N. Rytina, and B. C. Baker. 2009. Estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population residing in the United States: January 2008. Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics.

National Immigration Law Center. 2005. DREAM Act: Basic information. Washington, DC.

Passel, J. S. 2006. The size and characteristics of the unauthorized migration population in the U.S.: Estimates based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.

Passel, J. S., and D. Cohn. 2009. A portrait of unauthorized immigrants in the United States. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.

Perez, W. 2009. We ARE Americans: Undocumented students pursuing the American dream. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Yates, L. S. 2004. Plyer v. Doe and the rights of undocumented immigrants to higher education: Should undocumented students be eligible for in-state college tuition rates? Washington University Law Quarterly 82, 585-609.

Editor's note: A version of this article appeared previously in the Claremont Letter, a publication of Claremont Graduate University's School of Educational Studies. The article is republished here by permission of the author.

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