The Crippling Cost of College for America's Undocumented Students

The price of college can be a deterrent for many students, but without financial aid or access to federal loans, it can be outright prohibitive for undocumented students.

by Meredith Hoffman
Apr 4 2016, 4:00am

Photo via Nazareth College's Flickr page

Renata Teodoro began her freshman year at the University of Massachusetts Boston like most 18 year olds—eager, excited, nervous—but she'd worked harder than most to get there. Her parents hadn't gone to college, so she had to navigate the system on her own, and though she'd grown up in Massachusetts, she had to pay pricey out-of-state tuition because she was undocumented. She'd worked part-time jobs through high school to pay for her first semester.

Then, one day during winter break, Teodoro got a call from her sister. Immigration officials had entered her family's house, detained her brother, and then deported her family back to Brazil. Teodoro, who was afforded deportation relief through President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2013, remained in the US alone.

Since then, Teodoro, now 28 years old, has been trying to finish her degree while working to pay tuition and live on her own. "I've been working and paying taxes, but can't access the same things that would help me stay in school," said Teodoro, referring to federal loans and grants that help US citizens pay for school. "Last semester I had to work 35 to 40 hours a week, and I was taking five classes."

Teodoro's battle to get through college is typical for undocumented students, even those with DACA status. State and federal laws make it nearly difficult for both undocumented students to afford college by denying them financial aid or loans, and a few states—Alabama and South Carolina—even ban undocumented individuals from attending their public universities.

[Many undocumented] students have a hard time getting support on campus, and it leads to a lot of issues connected to depression, mental health, and anxiety. —Laura Bohórquez

The US requires all states to provide children free K through 12 education (regardless of legal residency), per the 1982 Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe. But its stance on college is quite the opposite, explained Philip Wolgin, managing director of the immigration policy team with the Center for American Progress.

"The big issue is that most states do not offer in-state tuition [to undocumented students]," Wolgin said. As of this year, 18 states offer in-state tuition to undocumented students, but the other 32 states require undocumented students pay pricier out-of-state fees. The federal government prohibits both undocumented and DACA students from receiving federal grants, loans, or work-study funding, and only six states (California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington) offer any form of financial aid to undocumented students. Even private student loans typically reject undocumented students unless they have a legal resident co-sign on the loans, according to the advocacy group Educators for Fair Consideration.

The price of college can be a deterrent for many students, but without financial aid, it can be outright prohibitive for undocumented students, 61 percent of whom have an annual household income below $30,000, according to a study last year by UCLA's Institute on Immigration, Globalization, and Education. In other words, while over 70 percent of college students with legal residency receive financial aid to help with tuition, most undocumented students have to pay the full sticker price.

Laura Bohórquez, director of the educational empowerment program for the immigrant youth organization United We DREAM, told me that 65,000 undocumented individuals graduate high school each year, but only 10 percent end up going to college. Of those students, between 1 and 3 percent graduate within six years, she said—and the main roadblock is the cost.

"Most students don't end up going to college because they can't afford it," Bohorquez told me. "Our students are trying to work two or three jobs to be able to go to school, so they're so tired when in school. They have a hard time getting support on campus, and it leads to a lot of issues connected to depression, mental health, and anxiety."

DACA has eased some of the hardship for students like Teodoro, who became eligible to receive in-state tuition in 2013 when several states, including Massachusetts, opened up state financial aid to DACA recipients. DACA students nationwide are also eligible for scholarships to private universities through a new fund, The Dream.US. The fund's program director Gaby Pacheco, told me the organization had raised $91 million and funded 900 students in the past two years, in a total of ten different states.

"We select colleges that are based in areas where there are high populations of DREAMers, and we try to create a sense of community, sending cohorts of DREAMers to schools," Pacheco said, adding that it was easier to raise money and support for DACA recipients than undocumented youth without deferred action.

But even with scholarships and deferred action, the financial burden for undocumented students can still be greater than the average college student.

"Though our students' retention rates are really high and their GPA's are high, and we require students to attend school full time, a lot of student ask for exceptions to do part time," Pacheco said. "Many times they call in distress because, with their parents undocumented, they're not just working to help pay the bills but also chauffeuring their families around. The responsibility these young people have is tremendous." She said that many students also feared their family's deportation and worried that DACA—an executive order by President Obama, which could be revoked by the next president—could be in jeopardy.

For those who don't have DACA status, paying for college can be an impossibility. (In order to receive DACA, an individual must have entered the country before age 16 and have lived in the US continually since 2007.) Francisco Salcido, a 22-year-old DACA student at Arizona's Pima Community College, is eligible for in-state tuition at the school—but his brother Hector, who doesn't meet DACA's requirements, had to leave school because he couldn't afford the out-of-state fees.

"My older brother didn't qualify for DACA because he left to visit my grandmother when DACA was passed," Salcido explained. "He went to Pima for a semester with in-state tuition and then got a letter that he had to show his application for DACA or residency, so he dropped out. He could have kept going to Pima with out-of-state tuition, but it was too much money."

Salcido said his brother had hoped to become a doctor, after serving in the Mexican Red Cross.

"I saw him getting excited when he found out new opportunities," Salcido recalled of his brother, who attended Pima in the fall semester of 2015. "Seeing him sad that he can't do them is heartbreaking. He'll find a way eventually."

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