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Fai Howard, Virginia Commonwealth University

Fai Howard,jpbImmigration, and especially immigration reform, is a hot button item.  Undocumented students are included in the immigration debate and are steadily gaining more attention.  What has arguably obtained some of the most attention are the laws and policies pertaining to undocumented students pursuing college.  An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate every year from U.S. high schools (National Immigration Law Center, 2012).  About three quarters of the undocumented population are from Latin America and more than half are from Mexico, with significant populations from Central and South America and Asia (Perez, 2012).

The information provided in this article is meant to inform readers about national education equity, laws, and proposed legislation pertaining to undocumented students, as well as provide insight into some of the experiences of this population.  The piece concludes with recommendations for college personnel interested in providing resources for undocumented students.

In-state Tuition for Undocumented Students

The federal government has not specifically addressed or passed any legislation pertaining to undocumented students in higher education.  Consequently, individual states have been taking matters into their own hands since 2001 by passing laws and creating policy that is implemented at the college/university level.

Over the past decade, the majority of states have considered legislation to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students.  Policymakers in many states have not been successful in passing what is known as education equity legislation for undocumented students in higher education.  The Education Commission of States identified 32 states that considered or passed in-state tuition legislation for undocumented students, indicating widespread national interest in this particular area (Russell, 2011). 

According to a report by the National Conference of State Legislators (2014), 18 states currently have provisions allowing in-state tuition rates for undocumented students as of April 2014. Sixteen states provide these provisions through state legislation.  California and Texas were the first states to enact legislation in 2001.  In 2002, New York and Utah passed similar legislation.  During the 2003 and 2004 legislative sessions, Washington, Oklahoma, Illinois, and Kansas all passed such laws.  However, Oklahoma revoked its law in 2008.  In 2005 and 2006, New Mexico and Nebraska signed undocumented student tuition legislation into law, and Wisconsin enacted a similar law in 2009, but then revoked that law in 2011.  Maryland's governor signed a law in May 2011 allowing undocumented students meeting the specified requirements to pay in-state tuition at community colleges only.  Also in 2011, Connecticut enacted a law allowing in-state tuition for undocumented students.  In 2013, four states, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, and New Jersey enacted laws permitting in-state tuition for undocumented students.  Florida approved in-state tuition for undocumented in 2014 and it is currently awaiting the Governor’s signature.   The most recent update is from the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Virginia Attorney General, Mark R. Herring, announced that Virginia students approved for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals now qualify for in-state tuition on April 29, 2014 (Gabriel, 2014).

Howard charts.jpg


Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

In June of 2012, President Obama signed an executive order and announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which would shield eligible undocumented immigrant youth from deportation and provide them with a pathway to work authorization for a two-year period that is renewable.  An estimated 1.7 million undocumented youth who migrated to the U.S. with their parents before they were 16 years old may be eligible for the new program (Amuedo-Dorantes & Sparber, 2012).

Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act

At the congressional level, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which goes several steps further to provide undocumented students with a pathway to permanent residency status and access to federal benefits such as aid for college, was first introduced in 2001 and has stalled on several occasions. 

Psychological Impact

Undocumented students educated in the U.S. face unique challenges and experience differences in adolescent and adult development.  Many undocumented students suffer from serious psychological and emotional distress (Drachman, 2006).  For many undocumented students, the college application process is the first time they ever internalize their illegal status, as college applications demand both residency and financial documents (Vargas, 2010-2011).  Qualitative research conducted by Gonzales (2011) with 150 interviews of undocumented Latina/o young adults in Southern California was quite telling in reference to the lived experiences of undocumented individuals.  Many undocumented persons go through a transition to illegality. Gonzales (2011) determined there were three transition periods.  While scholarly literature defines the early and middle transitions as ages 18 to 24 and 25 to 29, this framework is not applicable to the undocumented population.  Many undocumented students have been protected and integrated through the U.S. public school system.  Gonzales (2011) determined there were three transition periods.  The first is called discovery, ages 16 through 18 years, and during this period their undocumented status is discovered.   The next period, ages 18 through 24 years, is known as learning to be illegal.  The final transition period is coping, taking place from age 25 through 29 years of age. 

Cavazos-Rehg, Zayas, and Spitznagel (2007) hypothesized that undocumented status is a “persistent and insidious pyscho environmental stressor” that increases Latina/o immigrant’s vulnerability to acculturative stress and other socioemotional problems.  Their findings showed that Latina/o immigrants concerned with deportation reported higher levels of stress related to economic and occupational challenges than immigrants who did not express deportation concerns.  Undocumented Mexican immigrants have reported loneliness, disorientation, isolation, feeling trapped, depression, and sadness; their marginality is reinforced by the ambiguousness of being “illegal” on one hand, while being unofficially welcomed through the economic “back door” on the other (Pérez and Cortés, 2011).


Only a handful of readers work in states that provide education equity for undocumented students.  Hence, it is important to actively seek information about the undocumented population and any laws/legislation pertaining to undocumented students pursuing higher education in each state.  Create an information sheet about general student services which also includes information pertaining to undocumented students in your state.  Share the information with colleagues and students when the opportunity arises.  In this approach, undocumented students receive information without disclosing their status.  Information is also available from the National Association of Student Financial Aid and Administrators, (http://www.nasfaa.org/uploads/documents/ektron/9bbef920-9549-441f-a931-a23cc97a3889/b5eb27cfd02d4b1dbefda62566dd9af45.pdf).  Additionally, advisors may encourage application to the DACA program if a student discloses his or her undocumented status. Finally, all university personal must abide by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This act prohibits school officials from disclosing a student’s undocumented status (Salsbury, 2003). 

Fai Howard
Director, Office of Student Services
College of Humanities & Science, Associate Dean's Office
Virginia Commonwealth University
[email protected]


Amuedo-Dorantes, C. & Sparber, C. (2012). In-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and its impact on college enrollment, tuition cost, student financial aid, and indebtedness. IZA Working Paper No. 6857, September.

Cavazos-Rehg, P. A., Zayas, L. H., & Spitznagel, E. L. (2007). Legal status, emotional well being and subjective health status of Latina/o immigrants. Journal of the National Medical Association, 99, 1126-1131.

Drachman, E. (2006). Access to higher education for undocumented students.  Peace Review:  A Journal of Social Justice, 18, 91-100.

Gabriel, T. (2014, April 29). Virginia attorney general opens in-state tuition to students brought to U.S. illegally. New York Times.  Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/30/us/dreamers-eligible-for-in-state-tuition-virginias-attorney-general-says.html?_r=0.

Gonzales, R. G. (2011). Learning to be illegal:  Undocumented youth and shifting legal contexts in the transition to adulthood.  American Sociological Review, 4, 602-619. doi:  10.1177/0003122411411901.

National Conference of State Legislators. (2014). Undocumented student tuition:  State action. Retrieved from  http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/undocumented-student-tuition-state-action.aspx.

National Immigration Law Center. (2012). Basic Facts about in-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrant Students.  Retrieved from https://www.nilc.org/issues/education/basic-facts-instate/.

Pérez, W. (2012). Undocumented students in higher education.  In Banks, J. A., Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education (pp. 2215-2218). Thousand Oaks, CA:  SAGE Publications, Inc.

Pérez, W. & Cortés, R.D. (2011). Undocumented Latina/o college students their socioemotional and academic experiences. El Paso, TX:  LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.

Russell, A. (2011, March). State policies regarding undocumented college students:  A narrative of unresolved issues, ongoing debate, and missed opportunities.  A Higher Education Policy Brief.  Retrieved from http://www.aascu.org/uploadedFiles/AASCU/Content/Root/PolicyAndAdvocacy/PolicyPublications/PM_UndocumentedStudents-March2011.pdf

Salsbury, J. (2003). Evading “residence”:  Undocumented students, higher education, and the states. American University Law Review, 53(2), 459-490.

Vargas, E.D. (2010-2011). In-state tuition policies for undocumented youth. Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy, 23, 44-58.

Posted in: 2014 June 37:2


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