Opening Access

Strategies for guiding undocumented students to college

By Jill Anderson, on January 9, 2017 4:40 PM
Opening Access: Strategies for guiding undocumented students to college #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

For undocumented students, the path to college can be littered with unique obstacles, from limited financial resources to fear of disclosing status to a sense of hopelessness that can get in the way before they even apply.

What can educators do to meet the particular needs of these students — to prepare them academically and support them emotionally?

A pivotal piece of the equation: Get to know your students well, and develop strong relationships, says Roberto Gonzales, who has studied the experiences of undocumented young people for years. “Because undocumented students are excluded from federal financial aid and state aid in all but five states, they have arguably greater needs for college guidance than their American-born or citizen peers,” says Gonzales, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of Lives in Limbo.

“Unfortunately, their status carries a stigma that keeps them from disclosing to school personnel and, thus, seeking out the help they need. The vast majority of these children are closeted about their status to most people outside of their family. As a result, they don’t receive the help they need because their individual problems go undetected by their teachers and counselors.”

To break through those barriers, Claudia Martinez, a counselor at Boston Latin Academy, created a group called Unafraid Educators, which provides a safe space for undocumented students to find assistance, and which works with educators and counselors across Boston Public Schools.

According to Martinez, among the 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school, only one to three percent will graduate from college. “College can be a huge amount of money to pay out of pocket, so there is this feeling that it might never happen ... add in the rhetoric in the media right now with immigrants not being welcome or that they are criminals. I think students really internalize that and wonder whether they are capable,” she says.

College Advising for Undocumented Students

The following strategies, based on conversations with Martinez and Gonzales, can help educators prepare undocumented students for success, starting well before the college application process begins:

  • At the beginning of the year, establish a safe environment for all students, especially immigrants and undocumented students. Do not ask students about their status; rather, Martinez suggests, simply recognize that undocumented students are welcome and that any intolerance toward others will not be permitted in class. This is a way to send a message that you are a safe person to talk to.  
  • Inspire younger undocumented students to study, receive the highest grades, and get involved at school. “Many competitive institutions will meet the full [financial] needs of students, even those who are undocumented, if they are high academic performing students,” she says.
  • Seek out “dual” enrollment programs for younger undocumented students, in which they take courses and earn college credit in high school. This can help with college enrollment and also provide an opportunity to earn fewer credits in college, ultimately saving money in the long run.
  • Since undocumented students can’t receive federal financial aid, many have to pay out-of-pocket, so talk with them about the importance of saving money. And help high school seniors research and apply for scholarships. “If you have a hunch that a student is undocumented but doing well in school, then encourage the student to keep doing well; the better they do, the more they are likely to get scholarships,” Martinez says.
  • Encourage undocumented students, who may have missed specific college application deadlines, to keep working hard and apply. “If I had a senior coming to me right now, then I’d encourage him to look at rolling deadlines and schools that their family can afford to pay out-of-pocket,” Martinez says. “What ends up being most affordable to many undocumented students is to consider applying to community college, which tend to have rolling admissions.”
  • Stay informed about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Gonzales notes that if DACA is eliminated, as President-Elect Donald Trump has said he would do, undocumented students would lose their work authorization, driver’s licenses, and other forms of access they have gained. “But these decisions will not affect access to post-secondary institutions,” he says. “It's important that educators know this.”
  • Advise about filling out the “citizenship” portion of the application. According to Martinez, the student should not check off the "citizen" box. If the student does not have a visa, inquire about DACA status. Some applications ask students to specify. If the student has neither a visa nor DACA, he will need to file as an international student, Martinez says. She recommends the student follow up with the admissions office, requesting to speak to a person who processes international applications or deals with multicultural affairs, because she may be able to further advise. “The student should not be afraid to call,” she says.
  • Connect undocumented students to organizations working with this group of young people. “Isolation is a problem,” Martinez says. “Many are afraid to share status and sometimes don’t know other people going through the same experience.”
  • Consider researching and creating a list of institutions with friendly policies toward undocumented students. “There are now many private universities that provide private, need-based financial aid, and many public universities that are supportive to undocumented students,” Gonzales notes.
  • Deter the hopelessness that many undocumented students feel, which can get in the way of filling out an applications and following through. “Remind them they can go to college and be successful,” Martinez says. “It is going to be difficult, but it is about interrupting the hopelessness and building relationships and encouraging them, even when it’s going to be hard but possible.”

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Faculty in this article

Roberto G. Gonzales

Roberto Gonzales' research focuses on the factors that promote and impede the educational progress of immigrant and Latino students.