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Michelle Sotolongo, Texas State University-San Marcos


Michelle Sotolongo.jpgUndocumented students – many of whom did not make the choice to come to the U.S. – are attending colleges and universities in increasing numbers, and they are an under-recognized demographic. This article identifies available resources for these students to assist advisors in producing educated members of society, regardless of legal status. Students build relationships with their advisors, which puts us in a special role that connects all aspects of higher education. While advisors may not be experts in all areas of college life, it is often up to us to guide students through the proper channels. When approached with a situation as delicate as undocumented status, it is important for the advisor to easily pinpoint resources that will enable the student to succeed. This article should be interpreted as a template, more than a how-to manual, for interacting with undocumented students. Since there are an infinite number of variables to factor in for each situation, especially at the levels of state legislature and individual campus policies, a great first step is to find out if the university has written policies or procedures regarding undocumented students. Based on the campus’ resources, students need to be made aware of the academic options for their specific situations and goals.


Every college student’s journey begins with the office of admissions, and for undocumented students it is no different. In fact, contact with this particular demographic should begin before they ever step foot on campus. Recruiting trips to junior high and high schools are the best occasions to remind potential students and their families that accessibility of college does exist despite their immigration status. It is extremely important to stress the fact that college is an option. Of undocumented students ages 18-24, only 10% of males and 16% of females are enrolled in college (Fortuny, Capps, & Passel, 2007).

Overall, only 10%-20% of undocumented youth (an estimated 7,000-13,000) who graduate from high school go on to college (Passel, 2003). There have been experimental measures implemented by some states to increase those numbers. For example, in the fall of 2005, nearly 5,100 undocumented students enrolled under a State of Texas law allowing in-state tuition for undocumented students, up from 400 students during the program’s first year. However, that still accounts for only a small portion of the state’s 1 million+ enrolled in higher education. Another visible pattern is that nearly 80% of all undocumented students who were enrolled in 2005 attended community colleges (Garza, 2006), many of whom do so because of financial reasons.

Financial Aid

High on the list of concerns undocumented students struggle with is finances. Having to pay out-of-state tuition, which can cost almost double the in-state rate, is a daunting task when the students are unable to work legally to cover necessary expenses. Knowing what and how to search for available aid that does not require a Social Security number will be extremely helpful in lightening the load for a student who has to balance one or more jobs in addition to his or her academic course load. Some examples of financial aid resources that fall under three general categories include National: Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, Latino College Dollars, The East Los Angeles Community Union; State: TASFA, TEXAS Grant, Texas Public Education Grant (Texas high school graduates qualifying for state residency under Education Code Sections 54.052 & 54.053, formerly House Bill 1403/Senate Bill 1528, are eligible to apply for state financial aid as well as pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities); and finally, Private and University/Departmental whose requirements vary from award to award. An important note is that there are no legal ramifications for private organizations or individuals who grant scholarships to undocumented students ('Advising undocumented students:,' 2010). An economic impact study conducted by the Texas Comptroller concluded that every dollar the state invested in higher education for undocumented students would yield more than five dollars for the Texas economy in the long run (Strayhorn, 2006).

Academic Advisors

When discussing career plans with the student be wary of degree programs in which background checks or internships may be required, such as K-12 education, the health professions, and social work, as well as graduate and doctoral programs that accept undocumented students. Being able to provide resources for the student while fostering self-sufficient behavior and increasing self-esteem is vital when establishing the necessary rapport with these students. It is equally important to be honest about what happens after graduation and facilitate an open dialogue with students, encouraging them to continue one with their parents. De Leon’s (2005) qualitative study of 10 undocumented male Mexican college students revealed they felt relationships with school counselors and teachers as being particularly important sources of information and guidance. In fact, the study argued most of the information students receive about applying to college comes from other adults in the community, as opposed to school agents (De Leon, 2005). Finally, advisors should feel comfortable offering guidance and support to their students, referring to campus counseling services if needed.

Prospective Students and the Community

Provide information on the DREAM Act. Students should be made aware of their eligibility to apply to college, especially once the DREAM Act passes ('Basic information about,' 2010). Holding informational workshops in the community during orientations or campus visitation days is a great way to reach out to new prospective students. Sourcing a student support group on campus, developing one, or hosting an off-campus group are also ways of connecting with students.


Academic advisors have the incredible duty to aid their students in whatever way they can. Due to the sensitive nature of this issue, it is impossible to have all the answers, especially when the reality is that most doors are closed to these students, which is news nobody wants to hear or give. The best that can be done is to be as informed as possible, and perhaps eventually become proactive members of a support network.

Michelle Sotolongo
Academic Advisor
University College Advising Center
Texas State University-San Marcos
[email protected]


Advising undocumented students: Higher education obstacles and possibilities (2010). Retrieved from http://professionals.collegeboard.com/guidance/financial-aid/undocumented-students.

Basic information about the dream act legislation (2010, July 16). Retrieved from http://dreamact.info/students.

De Leon, S. (2005). Assimilation and ambiguous experience of the resilient male Mexican immigrants that successfully navigate American higher education. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas, Austin.

Fortuny, K., Capps, R., & Passel, J.S. (2007). The characteristics of unauthorized immigrants in California, Los Angeles County, and the United States. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Garza, C.L. (2006, April 6). Immigrant students seek path to a dream. Houston Chronicle, pp. A1, A3.

Passel, J. S. (2003). Further demographic information relating to the DREAM act. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute. Retrieved from www.nilc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/dream_demographics.pdf

Strayhorn, C. K. Office of the Texas State Comptroller, Office of the Texas State Comptroller (2006). Special report: undocumented immigrants in texas. Austin: Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

Cite this article using APA style as: Sotolongo, M. (2012, June). In limbo: Challenges faced by undocumented students in higher education. Academic Advising Today, 35(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2012 June 35:2


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