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This Just Published: Latinx undocumented college student success

by Daniel Corral | Feb 14, 2018

This Just Published logo, 480 pixelsDaniel Corral is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis and an Interdisciplinary Training Program fellow at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. His research focuses on access to higher education for Latinx students, as well as the role Hispanic-Serving Institutions play in educating Latinx students.

Daniel Corral headshotCoverage o​f Latinx undocumented college students has increased within the current policy environment. This month’s This Just Published highlights three recent articles exploring access to college for Latinx undocumented students.

Murillo, M. A. (2017). Undocumented and college-bound: A case study of the supports and barriers high school students encounter in accessing higher education. Urban Education, 1-29.


View the journal article.

Murrillo’s study aims at understanding the ways in which undocumented students access college and confront challenges. Undocumented students live in a constant state of uncertainty. Part of this uncertainty is driven by different federal and state policies. The ruling from the landmark Supreme Court case, Plyler v Doe, held that undocumented students have the right to K-12 education. However, once these students graduate from high school, they must deal with a transition to “illegality” due to their legal status constraining their work opportunities and their access to college. Undocumented students’ access to college is severely limited by an inability to apply for federal aid and, in some states, ineligibility for in-state tuition, thus having to pay sometimes over twice as much as documented students. As a result, undocumented students have less of an opportunity to attend college than their documented peers.

Due to these constraints, traditional models of college choice do not adequately address this population. Murillo notes that commonly used models of college choice, such as Hossler and Gallagher’s (1987) and Perna’s (2006), do not acknowledge the unique positions of undocumented students, and more broadly, the experiences of students of color. Consequently, Murillo draws on Nienhusser’s (2013) taxonomy of college choice activities to conceptually frame his study of undocumented students. Nienhusser classified college choice activities into five categories: one-on-one counseling, presentations, outreach, scholarships, and curriculum. 

Murillo used case study methodology, relying on observations and interviews with 14 undocumented students and 13 educators, to understand how an urban high school in California assists undocumented students though the college application process. Murillo found that one-on-one counseling was most prevalent in the high school. It was through this counseling that teachers sought to, first and foremost, tell undocumented students that college was a possibility. Murillo’s participants felt this was the most important step in the college-going process as students gained knowledge about college costs, for example. However, Murillo details that many teachers were worried that once students actually began applying for college, they would provide students with inaccurate information. This is important to note in today’s continually shifting federal and state policy environment (e.g., President Trump’s recent repeal of President Obama’s Executive Order of Differed Action for Childhood Arrivals, a.k.a. DACA).

In addition to the potential of supplying students with inaccurate information, Murillo found that students experienced difficulty in navigating the process of filling out forms related to college applications and financial aid. However, it was through these challenging situations where Murillo found that students who successfully completed applications helped their undocumented peers with their forms. Additionally, teachers also helped students complete their DACA applications, which provided students with a social security number and temporary relief from deportation for two years. Lastly, Murillo underscored that although students in California were eligible for state financial aid, such as the California Dream Act, the grants and scholarships students received did not fully cover tuition, room, and board, nor other expenses related to attendance. Consequently, although students received support from their teachers and peers, cost of attendance served as the most severe roadblock to college attendance.

Overall, Murillo’s case study signals that although one high school fostered a college-going atmosphere inclusive of undocumented students, several barriers remained. Murillo offers several policy recommendations. For instance, Murillo ​advocates for a federal Development, Relief an Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act to provide a permanent pathway to citizenship. This would allow students to continue their educational pursuits and career goals. He also recommends states invest additional funds to help support high school counselors, particularly in districts with low-income students.  

Roth, B. J. (2017). When college is illegal: Undocumented Latina/o youth and mobilizing social support for educational attainment in South Carolina. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, 8(4), 539-561. 

View the journal article.

Roth’s study focuses on undocumented Latina/o youth in South Carolina, a more restrictive context for these students. South Carolina is one of two states in the United States with a state policy banning undocumented students form enrolling in all public colleges and universities. This leaves students with two choices: attend a private university in the state or attend a university in a different state. The caveat with both of these options is that they are costly. Roth interviewed 36 students to understand how they develop and leverage social capital with school agents to access information about college. Roth’s participants had all taken at least one honors or advanced placement class, a sign that these students were traditionally “college-bound.”

Roth’s study is guided by theories of social integration and social capital for immigrants. Roth outlines that immigrant integration, “the process by which immigrants adjust socially, economically, and politically to the places where they settle,” depends on a variety of aspects including context of reception. Scholars have used segmented assimilation theory as a way to understand social integration. Segmented assimilation assumes that immigrants will assimilate into society at different rates and pathways (e.g., upward, downward, or stagnant). Tied to assimilation and integration is social capital: resources captured through a person’s social ties. Roth uses these theories to frame how undocumented students, because of their legal ambiguity, may not properly assimilate into society due to the debilitating nature of their documentation status. In addition, because these students are many times the first people in their families to attend college, they may not have the necessary social resources to tap into for information about college. Even more, this theory does not consider the restrictive context Roth positions his study in. Thus, Roth attempts to both use these theories and address their limitations in his study.

Roth’s findings show that developing and negotiating trust played a role in the relationships students had with teachers. These relationships helped forge pathways to higher education by providing teachers and counselors with more information to help undocumented students make informed decisions, albeit at a high risk. Those students who did not disclose their status chose to “pass as legal.” Passing as legal was essentially a form of denial in which students worked through the college process as if they were documented. Students would then blame finances, instead of their legal status, as the reason for not going to college. Students engaging in this also distanced themselves and became less engaged in school as a way to further hide their status.

In summary, Roth demonstrates that because of the restrictive context they live in (South Carolina), the notion of immigrant integration is more complicated for these students. Furthermore, developing relationships with teachers, as a way to access more information about going to college, situated students in a dangerous position of deciding to disclose their legal status or not. Roth recommends that further research considers the policy context more closely when studying immigrant populations. He also suggests that without comprehensive federal reform, the state of access to higher education for undocumented youth continue to be precarious.

Villarraga-Orjuela, A., & Kerr, B. (2017). Educational effects of banning access to in-state resident tuition for unauthorized immigrant students. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 39(4), 1–24.


View the journal article.

The previous two studies focused on access to college in two distinct contexts and identified different barriers for undocumented students still in high school. In Roth’s study, the participants negotiated dreams of attending college while living in a state where undocumented students were not allowed to attend any postsecondary institution, including community colleges.

Villarraga-Orjuela and Kerr’s study, by contrast, looks at the effects of state policies banning access to in-state resident tuition (ISRT). ISRT policies significantly improve the chances of attending college for undocumented students according to previous studies, (Flores, 2010a, 2010b; Darolia & Potochnick, 2015). These policies can significantly increase the chances of attending college by reducing the cost of attendance, especially since these students cannot receive federal financial aid. Villarraga-Orjuela and Kerr study the flip side of this by focusing their attention on states that have explicit bans on ISRT.

The study is driven by human capital theory. Human capital theory posits that people invest in their mental and physical abilities to enhance their productivity in the labor market. A common way to enhance one’s human capital is through education, by earning credentials. This limits undocumented students, since the only credential they are “legally guaranteed” is a high school diploma or equivalent. The banning of ISRT reduces access to college for undocumented students and also their ability to invest in themselves, leaving students with limited options.

Villarraga-Orjuela and Kerr draw on the American Community Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Wage and Hour Division at the U.S. Department of Labor, and the College Board for their data to answer their research questions: 1) how do ISRT policy bans affect college attendance of undocumented students; 2) how do ISRT policy bans affect high school drop-out rates; and 3) how do ISRT policy bans affect college participation for U.S. citizens. Their data cover the timespan from 2005-2012. They identify undocumented individuals by those who identified as foreign-born and non-citizens in the American Community Survey. They estimate the effects of these policies through a triple differences-in-differences estimation, leveraging this quasi-experimental design of these policies. Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, and Ohio all implemented ISRT bans.

The authors find that ISRT bans are associated with an 8.4-point decrease in college attendance for undocumented students. This estimate is statistically significant. ISRT bans were not associated with high school dropout as the estimate was not statistically different than zero. Finally, white, black, Asians, and naturalized Hispanics were 1 percent less likely to attend college after these policies were implemented.

These results signal a clear attack on undocumented students that want to advance their education and ultimately their social position. Although the bans accomplished what ostensibly was their goal of restricting access to college, the ban did not increase access to legal individuals. This policy disproportionately affects undocumented students without benefiting other individuals who have access to college in the first place. Thus, policymakers, in both states that have these policies and those considering them, must identify what the affordances and limitations are beyond constraining opportunity and constructing even more barriers for individuals that have aspirations of attending college.

These series of articles underscore a segment of the U.S. population that continues to press against glass ceilings daily. Many undocumented students participate as if they were citizens in U.S. society until they are identified as being illegal in the country ​where they've grown up. The current political landscape offers little hope for undocumented students. Nevertheless, researchers, practitioners, and advocates must continue researching and highlighting the importance that higher education makes for these students. We must also continue, as all the authors recommended, advocating for permanent pathways to residency. It is time for these students to permanently gain the rights and privileges they deserve.

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