Higher Education issues in American

Removing Barriers to Higher Education for Undocumented Students

Removing Barriers to Higher Education for Undocumented StudentsSOURCE: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

Sigifredo Pizana Hernandez of Grand Rapids, Michigan, attends the Rally for Citizenship on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 10, 2013.

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Each year, millions of students graduate from American high schools. Counted among that throng of proud graduates are about 65, 000 undocumented students. Unlike for their classmates, however, this moment of achievement for undocumented graduates is muted by the facts that their path to higher education remains difficult at best and that few of them actually complete a postsecondary education.

In 1982, the Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe 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. Moreover, Congress and a number of state legislatures have affirmatively attempted to bar—and, in many cases, have prohibited—access to education benefits for undocumented students. These legal barriers add to the social and economic challenges undocumented students face—challenges that make their route to higher education very steep compared with their peers.

Undocumented college studentIn the past three decades, the cost of attaining a college degree has increased by more than 1, 000 percent. Despite the soaring cost, undocumented students in all states are still prohibited from accessing all forms of federal education benefits that make up a large percentage of how students finance their postsecondary education. Furthermore, many undocumented students are denied in-state tuition rates and have to pay higher rates to attend the public college or university in their home state. These exclusions leave undocumented students unable to pay for a postsecondary education.

Since 2001, states have taken steps to try to make postsecondary education more accessible to undocumented students. State-based DREAM Acts—which have changed state residency requirements to allow undocumented students to pay the same tuition rates as their peers—have become law in several states. The first of the bills passed in Texas with bipartisan support in 2001. Texas legislators approved the law, acknowledging that the state economy benefits from a more educated population. Since then, 15 more states have passed similar legislation, and four states have gone even further, passing laws that allow undocumented students to access publicly funded education grants.

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