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High School Should Mean Something: College Access for Immigrant-Origin Youth

Introduction by: Lisa Pamela Lopez-Escobar and Sophia Rodriguez University of Maryland, College Park

Guest Blogger: Tifanee McCaskill, PhD Student, University of Maryland- College Park

September 18, 2023

In this week’s blog, Tifanee McCaskill, a fourth year PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park, suggest three ways district and school level policies can better support immigrant-origin students: college readiness programs beginning at age seven, access to visible and accurate college information, and increased access to dual-enrollment programming. The Supreme Court's ruling in Harvard and SFFA v. UNC (2023) that effectively ended affirmative action will certainly impact the college attendance of first generation immigrant students. Facing unique challenges such as language barriers and limited financial resources, without the support provided by affirmative action, the already difficult path to higher education has become even more fraught. States and school districts must act now, to ensure immigrant youth and their families obtain the resources and support they need to make informed decisions about higher education.

We welcome additional comments and reflections, please email us at: or through the Immigrant Ed Next website.

By Tifanee McCaskill

“I graduated from high school and have taken some college credits… but… I work with my mom. I have the same job. I can’t find anything else. It’s kinda ridiculous, you know. Why did I even go to school? It should mean something" -Margarita

Across the country, many immigrant-origin youth share the same sentiment as Margarita; high school should mean something. However, many immigrant-origin students complete their high school education in pursuit of the American dream of their non-immigrant peers, only to realize, often too late, that the dream contains more barriers than they were expecting. Some students, because of their undocumented immigration status, have found that many opportunities feel like “open doors leading to brick walls”. Unfortunately, many immigrant parents are unfamiliar with the college admission process and are unable to help their children navigate the American higher education system. Therefore young people from immigrant families should be able to rely on the public school system to provide them with necessary resources during their college access journey. Since immigrant-origin students often have unique circumstances regarding their immigration status and that of the people in their family, district and school level policy intending to increase their college access must be attentive to their specific needs. Using data regarding immigrant-origin youth college access, I suggest three ways district and school level policy can intentionally support these students.

1. Schools must create college readiness programs that target immigrant-origin youth beginning as early as middle school.

Immigrant-origin students, regardless of documentation status, are often faced with structural and institutional barriers to college access. For example, many Latinx immigrant families do not have an accurate understanding of the financial responsibilities associated with the college going process. Often these families have not been made aware of financial aid options and therefore eliminate college as a feasibility. Furthermore, many minoritized students believe they must shoulder the burden of navigating the financial aspect of college on their own. Immigrant children are likely to be enrolled in segregated, low performing schools that do not provide the necessary social or financial capital to help them navigate the college choice process. In addition, because their parents were not educated in the United States and are often not yet English-proficient, many immigrant-origin youth cannot rely on their parents to help them navigate the public school system, often resulting in students being placed into low level classes that do not prepare them for college.

Research shows that as e arly as 7th grade students begin to determine if they intend to continue their education after high school. Therefore college readiness programs that specifically target immigrant-origin youth should be available beginning in 7th grade. These college readiness programs should provide students with counselors or mentors who are able to provide meaningful support. For undocumented students, "access to educational supports, critical services, and extrafamilial adult mentors can mean the difference between successful college transitions and an early entry into low-wage employment and illegalized daily lives".

2. Schools and districts must provide visible and accurate information on public and private financial aid, tuition rates, and career opportunities for immigrant youth and their families.

While Plyler v Doe was a landmark case securing the right for undocumented students to attend public K-12 schools, this right has never been extended to post-secondary education. Since the US Constitution does not recognize post-secondary education as a right, states have been tasked with creating policy for their public universities and full autonomy is given to private institutions in their decision making concerning undocumented students. This creates a patchwork of admission and funding policies that impact immigrant-origin youth based on where they live. For example, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina prohibit undocumented students from attending some or all of their public universities. Although most states allow undocumented students to attend their public universities, as of November 2022, only twenty-three states and the District of Columbia allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition.

While some students are eligible for in-state tuition and others are treated like international students, all undocumented students are responsible for college tuition and fees without the aid of any federal funding. Specifically, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 prohibits undocumented students from receiving forms of government assistance, including federal financial aid. FAFSA is also a challenge for immigrant-origin students who are full citizens from mixed-status families because students and families may be hesitant to complete paperwork requiring personal and tax information from an undocumented parent. The opportunities for undocumented students and students who are eligible for DACA vary widely across time and space due to the absence of federal standards regarding undocumented student college access.

In some high schools, institutional agents are not aware of the college opportunities for undocumented students in their state, leading to the dissemination of inconsistent and inaccurate information, if any at all. However, research with Latina students showed they benefited from college counselors providing emotional support, privileged information, and access to rare opportunities for college. Access to higher level classes and information provided by counselors has been shown to lead to college enrollment. Institutional actors must be provided with accurate information from the district regarding college access for immigrant-origin students so they can begin to disseminate this information to students and families as early as 7th grade. Engaging immigrant-origin youth and their families as early as possible will give them plenty of time to grapple with the realities of their student's college choice opportunities in light of federal and state immigration policy and make the proper arrangements with sober expectations. However, school level actors should not be responsible for navigating and understanding these state and federal policies without clear guidance from their district.

3. Schools must increase access to dual-enrollment programming for immigrant-origin youth.

Dual enrollment programs are also an institutional resource that can increase college access for high school students. For example, one study with students who participated in dual enrollment programs found they were more likely to enroll in college and persist for at least two years than their peers who were not in dual enrollment programs. When students build "college knowledge" early in their secondary education by being on college campuses, they are more likely to enroll in post-secondary institutions in the future because these experiences allow them to see themselves as college students.

Final Thoughts

With the rising number of immigrant-origin youth in the US, attention must be given to the ways secondary schools are preparing these students for college application and admission. Immigrant-origin youth face unique barriers to college access due to both psychic and structural factors caused by the political climate in the US. Considering educational attainment as a predictor for upward mobility among immigrant populations, district and school level policy must reflect data regarding immigrant-origin youth's college access in light of federal and state immigration policy.

Be sure to follow us or tweet about #ImmigrantEdNext

Suggested Citation: Lopez-Escobar, L., Rodriguez, S., McCaskill, T. (2023, September 18). High School Should Mean Something: College Access for Immigrant-Origin Youth. Immigrant Ed Next.

Copyright © 2022: Sophia Rodriguez, Immigrant Ed Next-All Rights Reserved

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