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Programs and Resources to Support Undocumented Students in their Quest for Higher Education (Part 2)

By Jessica Gallegos

Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP Via Getty Images

While there are different manners in which colleges can support undocumented students, four specific ways will be addressed. Simultaneously enacting these methods would allow for a more comprehensive support system to be built around undocumented students’ academic and social needs throughout their college years.

To begin with, a critical program to implement would be to provide pre-college counseling, ensuring that undocumented students are aware of their post-high school options. This aspect is crucial to consider, since many students first become aware of their undocumented status during high school, and thus, the limitations that come with it. Without proper knowledge of their ability to apply to college and how to finance their education, many undocumented students, including DACA recipients, may believe that they are not able to attend.

Yet, studies have shown that undocumented students are often well prepared to go to college and can be extraordinary applicants. Researchers have found that college-eligible undocumented students “exhibit academic achievement, leadership participation and civic engagement patterns that are often above that of their US-citizen counterparts,” with high percentages of these students reporting participation in volunteer and extracurricular activities, as well as having held leadership positions (Perez 2010).

In his research, “Higher Education Access for Undocumented Students: Recommendations for Counseling Professionals,” William Perez notes key elements of pre-college counseling that should be implemented to facilitate college enrollment. Perez notes the significant barrier that the lack of federal, and in some cases state, financial aid can pose for undocumented students. He notes that numerous organizations, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, have created lists of scholarships for these students and that counselors should share such lists with undocumented students (Perez 2010).

In addition, Perez encourages high schools and colleges to host meetings in which students and their families can become more familiar with getting into and navigating college. In particular, making students aware of Advanced Placement (AP) exams, dual enrollment community college programs, and community college transfer programs can aid them in potentially saving money by obtaining credits towards their degree at a lower cost (Perez 2010). Doing this can especially help students who are in situations with limited financial resources.

A study in which such programs were enacted at the high school level at a few schools in New York City appeared to support this idea. Seven high schools implemented programs, some of which included one-on-one counseling, presentations, outreach, scholarship, and curriculum with regards to the college-choice process. The study noted that schools that had higher percentages of undocumented students offered more of these programs, yet, with the majority of them, one-on-one counseling was the most prevalent. School staff seemed to find this outreach method to be one of the most useful, as one counselor explained:

“So a lot of it is just providing information. And again, kids that are in this situation feel... they’re afraid to provide too much [information]... They don’t understand what this means, what that means, and so a lot of it is going step-by-step with them; a lot of hand holding and reassuring them of certain things, and also keeping them away from others so they understand you don’t fill that out, you don’t put this in . . . We’re going to have that discussion one-on-one . . .” (Nienhusser).

The study mentions the difficulty that some school staff and counselors may face in providing undocumented students with help. One particular difficulty is that it can be difficult to identify these students, as many are fearful to share their or their family’s undocumented status with others, and schools are not required to keep track of which or how many students are undocumented. Further, some students may fear that by attending meetings specifically for undocumented and DACA students, they will expose their status and could be ostracized or discriminated against by their peers and staff members. Therefore, counselors have to be tactful in how to disseminate information and resources, as well as with how they choose to meet with undocumented students.

Another way that can help undocumented pre-college students obtain the help they need can be by schools creating partnerships with outside organizations. Partnerships can often include legal services, as well as support with finding resources to finance college. Throughout California, for example, some school districts have taken the initiative to set-up such collaborations. The Oakland Unified School District has been able to connect newly arrived immigrants to mental health, legal, and social services to improve students’ school experience (Stavely 2021). In addition, the Los Angeles Unified School District has also partnered with the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law to provide an immigration law clinic (Stavely 2021). Helping students obtain legal aid before attending college can also help them become aware of opportunities, such as applying to DACA or other types of programs and visas they might be eligible for.

Furthermore, collaborating with college access programs could also be a key way to ensure that undocumented students are prepared and knowledgeable about their post-high school options. Although the services that these programs offer vary, some may provide mentoring, help with finding scholarships, application assistance, and even academic tutoring and enrichment. A study’s preliminary findings showed that college access programs increased enrollment to 2-year and 4-year colleges by 12 percentage points (Harvill et al.). It is important to note that many of these programs are targeted towards students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, with few programs existing only for undocumented students, and that certain programs may include residency or citizenship requirements. Therefore, it is crucial to consider the significant impact that expanding access to these programs could have for undocumented students in allowing for college enrollment and retention. For some programs, it would be beneficial to expand their work into the college years, ensuring that undocumented students don’t lose support after high school. Further, maintaining connections with such mentors could possibly help ease some of the difficulties that come with making the transition to college. Making students aware of these resources can encourage them to continue pursuing their education and may remove some of the stress and fear that accompanies their regard for the future.

*The final installment of “Programs and Resources to Support Undocumented Students in their Quest for Higher Education” will be published next month, identifying more resources for DACA recipients like social advocacy networks, ally trainings, and undocumented student resource centers.


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