Far more undocumented students at U.S. colleges than previously thought, study finds

New research indicates that 2 percent of all students enrolled in U.S. higher education are undocumented immigrants, far exceeding earlier estimates. According to the report—published by the New American Economy (NEA) in partnership with the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, of which Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia is a founding member—less than half of those 454,000 undocumented students are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides work authorization and protection against deportation for renewable two-year stints, but no path to citizenship.

Related: Georgetown, 400+ universities urge Congress to protect undocumented students >

Against the backdrop of an impending Supreme Court ruling on the legality of the way President Trump’s administration ended the DACA program, advocates are asking policymakers to consider the disruptions that could result from abruptly ending the program, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Inside Higher Ed.

Demographics of the undocumented student population

For the report, the NEA, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization working toward immigration policies that grow the economy, used data from the American Community Survey in the 2018 U.S. Census.

In addition to offering the first comprehensive count of undocumented students pursuing higher education, the report provides several insights about that population:

  • Almost half of undocumented college students arrived in the U.S. before age 12.
  • Most live in California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas.
  • Eighty-two percent attend two- or four-year public colleges; that proportion is even higher (84 percent) for DACA-eligible students.
  • Most are enrolled at the undergraduate level; 10 percent (13 percent when looking only at DACA-eligible students) are enrolled in graduate or professional degree programs.
  • The demographic makeup is diverse: 46 percent Hispanic/Latinx, 25 percent Asian American and Pacific Islander, 15 percent Black, 12 percent white, and 2 percent “other.” 
  • Among graduate students, 39 percent have bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields.

DACA proponents highlight implications for pandemic response

Advocates for continuing the DACA program, meanwhile, call attention to the impact a drop in undocumented students could have on the U.S. workforce, especially given that 27,000 of DACA program participants work in health care, writes The New York Times. Considering how many doctors, nurses, pharmacists, researchers, technicians, and other frontline health workers rely on DACA’s continued existence to remain in the U.S. and fight COVID-19, advocates say that the Supreme Court must take into account how national circumstances have changed since November 2019 when it heard oral arguments for the case. “It seems nonsensical to invite even more chaos into an already chaotic time,” a Florida-based paramedic and an undocumented immigrant named Aldo Martinez told The Times.

“Termination of DACA during this national emergency would be catastrophic,” Muneer I. Ahmad, a professor at Yale Law School, stated in a Supreme Court filing in March 2020. A supporting brief from the Association of American Medical Colleges and other groups in October 2019 stated that the U.S. was unprepared “to fill the loss that would result if DACA recipients were excluded from the health care workforce,” and that rescinding DACA “would deprive the public of domestically educated, well-trained, and otherwise qualified health care professionals.”

Undocumented students face roadblocks to financial aid

In addition to DACA uncertainty, undocumented college students face obstacles to financing their degrees. Undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial aid and cannot receive in-state tuition to public universities in more than half of all states, reports Education Dive. This lack of eligibility has especially strained student resources during the COVID-19 pandemic, since supportive family members who are undocumented cannot file for unemployment benefits in many states, and do not qualify for government stimulus money.

Further worsening the financial outlook for undocumented students, the U.S. Department of Education on April 21 issued guidance that undocumented students will not be eligible for emergency grants provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. Previously, the Education Department had said it would give colleges “wide latitude” in deciding how they want to distribute the $6.28 billion earmarked for institutions to give emergency aid grants directly to students who have been adversely affected by the pandemic. However, the updated guidance explicitly excludes undocumented students, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Higher education associations voiced disappointment, with David Baime, the American Association of Community Colleges’ senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis, saying that “as a sector, community colleges are committed to serving each and every individual who aspires to benefit from their programs.”

Meanwhile, several universities and nonprofit organizations have established emergency funds for undocumented students, and the state of California is providing one-time payments of up to $1,000 per household for undocumented residents.

Topics in this story

Next Up

Many student-athletes were already food-insecure. COVID-19 could make it worse.

A new report explores basic needs insecurity among student-athletes—challenges that have intensified since COVID-19 removed students from their campuses, meal plans, and training tables.