College Dreams Deferred

In the recession, undocumented students face more barriers to higher education.

By Cindy Von Quednow Sep 01, 2009

September 1, 2009

Upon graduating from high school in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles in May, Geraldine’s future was unclear.

While her classmates had applied to many colleges, Geraldine had only been able to apply to Cal State, Los Angeles and that was thanks to her counselor who had paid the application fee she couldn’t afford. So while her classmates were getting acceptance letters from schools across the country, Geraldine could only look forward to one and even then she would only be able to attend if she was awarded scholarships she had applied for.

The acceptance letter came, but the scholarship money didn’t and Geraldine couldn’t attend. Tuition is too high and she doesn’t qualify for financial aid because of her legal status. Geraldine is undocumented.  

Like all students her age, Geraldine is trying to attend college at a time when California is facing a $26 billion deficit, the state’s public universities have had their budgets cut severely, and Cal State students face 30 percent fee increases in the coming year.

What sets Geraldine, and other students like her apart though, is her legal status. It makes it impossible to get federal and state grants or student loans at a time when that’s become an even greater necessity. And because unemployment is high, undocumented students can’t count any longer on jobs to help pay for college.

“I feel bad because I can’t help her in what she wants to do,” said Geraldine’s mother, Aris, who is also undocumented and whose family last name is being withheld because of their legal status. “I tell her not to lose hope. If one door closes, another will open.”

Geraldine, a 19-year old Guatemala native, is one of the 65,000 estimated undocumented students who graduate from a U.S. high school every year, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C. research group. Of those graduates, about 13,000 enroll in public colleges and universities each year.

Dr. William Perez, assistant professor of education at Claremont Graduate University and author of We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream, said the undocumented student experience is an extreme example of what students who come out of low-income communities of color have to face in higher education.

“This financial crisis has exacerbated the situation and really made access to higher education and all of the challenges undocumented students face, even more intense,” added Perez. “The barriers are much higher now.”
Luckily for Geraldine, she lives in one of 10 states that allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition at any public college or university in California.

But during this economic crisis, even attending a relatively affordable community college can be challenging for undocumented students like Geraldine. As the oldest of five siblings, Geraldine and her mother scrape by with income from temporary jobs. Aris cleans houses when she can, and this summer Geraldine had a part-time job at a restaurant.

But it’s not nearly enough to provide for the family of six, let alone for Geraldine’s educational aspirations.  

Geraldine has applied to Santa Monica College, which has a high transfer rate to UCLA, where she would like to study one day. At $20 a unit, it is significantly cheaper than attending a four-year university, but costs add up quickly, when she accounts for expenses like fees, books, and public transportation to get to campus. She is hoping to start in the fall as a part-time student.

Geraldine is very much aware of her financial and legal barriers.

“I was really crushed,” said Geraldine about learning of her status when she was in middle school. “It keeps me from doing so many things I’d like to, but it doesn’t mean I’ll give up. It’s just a big road block.”

She knows that if and when she graduates, she won’t be able to work in her field unless she has a social security number.

“Sometimes I think, ‘what if I go through all of this work of going to school, then what?’” she said.  “But I try not to think about it. Things will get better, there’s always that chance.”

Undocumented students who can go to college do so, Perez said, even while knowing they will not be able to use their degree. He clarifies though that only a small percentage of undocumented youth are able to attend college and even fewer go on to graduate school.  

“They continue being enrolled in school because they want to have as much education preparation possible whenever the DREAM Act finally passes,” said Perez. “Now who knows if that is going to be an option for them giving the financial crisis of the state.”

Many undocumented students are pinning their hopes to the passage of the DREAM Act, a bill now stalled in Congress that would allow anyone graduating from a U.S. high school to be on a path toward citizenship.

“What the economic crisis has done is increase the urgency to pass the DREAM Act because now many more students are not even able to enroll in college because it is too expensive and the courses are not there,” said Perez.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are a total of 20,000 undocumented students enrolled in public universities across California, which amounts to 40 percent of all undocumented students in the nation.

These students will not be able to legally work in the U.S. unless the DREAM Act passes. The figure is striking considering that California will not have enough highly educated workers by 2025. Forty-one percent of jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree, while only 35 percent of the work force will have one, creating a skills gap shortfall of about one million college graduates, according to a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

“We have a lot of wasted talent,” said Alma, 25, who attended California State University, Northridge in 2008 and is also undocumented. “I know people who already have Ph.D.s and just because they don’t have a little paper with the correct status, they cannot work. The system should give us an opportunity because we can actually close that gap.”

Alma, whose last name is being withheld because of her legal status, works full-time at a coffee shop in Santa Monica and is raising her 3-year-old daughter. She needs to take one more class to get her bachelor’s degree in Chicana/o studies.  

That one class will set her back more than a thousand dollars and she can’t take it anywhere else. With bills to pay and a daughter to support, she’s find it increasingly hard to save up much money to finish to school.

Still, she’s determined that one day she’ll be applying to graduate or law school.

“It’s just a matter of focusing and networking with the right people. Somehow as an undocumented student you have to learn how to do that,” said the native of Guerrero, Mexico.

Undocumented students often rely on networking and personal connections to continue their education, Perez said.

“They have a larger than average social support network, meaning that they have at least one or two people in their life that really provide a significant sense of support,” explained Perez.

Lizbeth counts on support from friends and family. The 25-year-old is taking the LSAT in September and will be applying to law schools across the country in November. Although she is undocumented and not sure how she would pay for school if she doesn’t get a full scholarship, she knows that she has family members she can count on.

“My parents have supported me in so many ways, even just being there when I felt like I couldn’t go on anymore,” said the native of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Following her graduation in 2008 Lizbeth was seriously considering returning to Mexico because she knew she wouldn’t be able to do anything with her degree. Thinking of the many people who helped her accomplish her goals, she knew she couldn’t give up on herself, her family or other people in her situation.

“I think every undocumented student goes through that when they finish college,” said Lizbeth of her post-graduation depression.  “It’s a bittersweet moment when you graduate.”

While in school at Cal State Northridge, Alma and Lizbeth, who have been friends for years, were members of a student group called Dreams to be Heard. Now they are part of a new group, Dream Team LA, and Lizbeth is part of a national coalition called United with Dreams.

Perez noted that activism among undocumented students and youth is a way to cope with their situation. “It gives them a sense of purpose to deal with the otherwise hopelessness of their situation when they actually work on doing something about it,” he said.

“Graduating from CSUN really opened my eyes to my reality, because I don’t have the label of a student anymore. I’m becoming more invisible,” said Alma. “I think that now there is a bigger reason to be active because I can’t do anything else… my only solution is to have the DREAM Act pass.”  

Lizbeth has set two goals for herself: to pass the DREAM Act and get into law school.

“One of those two things is going to keep me into this country. If those things don’t happen I don’t think I can stay,” said Lizbeth. “But at least I can say that I did my best to change something and show this country and myself that I am capable of doing a lot of things.”

Cindy Von Quednow is an editorial intern with ColorLines.