California’s Undocumented Students Face Roadblocks on the Path to Higher Education

California has one of the most generous state financial aid programs in the country. In addition to receiving federal financial aid such as the Pell Grant, many California resident students also attend college tuition-free through various state and institutional grants at the California Community Colleges (CCCs), the California State University (CSU), and the University of California (UC). For California’s undocumented students, the road to higher education is a bit rockier. Extending financial resources to “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children) would boost their opportunities and produce long-term economic benefits to the state.

California has an estimated undocumented immigrant population of 2.6 million, more than 6% of the state’s population. Immigrants, including those without permanent legal status, play a vital role in our state’s economy and local communities, contributing billions in federal, state, and local tax contributions annually. Since higher education attainment is closely linked with higher earnings, ensuring that undocumented students have the support they need to succeed in college is vital to California’s economic well-being.

What Challenges Do Undocumented Students Face?

Undocumented students must navigate a complex set of challenges in pursuing higher education, complicated by their legal status. A study from the University of California at Los Angeles found that undocumented students reported significantly elevated levels of anxiety and constant concerns over deportation.

In addition to social stressors, one of the greatest barriers Dreamers face in pursuing higher education is accessing financial aid support. Undocumented students come from families with lower average incomes than other families, which means paying for college is out of reach for many without financial assistance. Undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial aid such as the Pell Grant, which provides low-income students with up to $6,095 to help pay for college. They are also unable to receive federal student loans or participate in work-study programs that provide part-time jobs for students with financial need. In addition to being barred from federal financial support, undocumented students are at the bottom of the eligibility pool for Competitive Cal Grants, the state’s primary grant that provides aid for tuition and living expenses for nontraditional students (e.g., those who do not attend college immediately after graduating from high school).

Without proper legal documentation, many Dreamers struggle to find meaningful work opportunities and build their professional skills. They also experience job insecurity, low wages, and labor-intensive work. The documentation status of other family members creates additional financial hardship and stress, even for students with citizenship. The constant social, financial, and legal challenges Dreamers face impede on their well-being and ability to succeed academically.

What Support Is Available for Undocumented Students?

In 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program provided Dreamers with temporary protection from deportation and legal permission to work. This federal program enabled thousands of students to work legally in the United States. As of 2017, more than a quarter of active DACA recipients live in California. While the Trump administration continues its attempts to dismantle DACA, many states, including California, have taken an inclusive approach by passing policies that strengthen and expand support for undocumented students.

Specifically, California has adopted the following policies:

  • In-state tuition. Undocumented students and other students without legal residency have traditionally paid a significantly higher tuition rate at the state’s public colleges and universities. Since 2001, however, California has granted Dreamers access to in-state tuition, helping to offset the cost of college.
  • State financial aid. The 2011 California Dream Act granted eligibility to undocumented students to apply, qualify for, and receive state financial aid such as Entitlement Cal Grants and the Middle Class Scholarship. However, some restrictions limit Dreamers from receiving certain types of aid, and the acceptance or “take-up” rate for those who are awarded aid is low and varies by sector. While many Dreamers apply for financial aid, few actually receive awards. In 2017-18, more than 50,000 Dreamers applied for aid, while less than 15% were offered an award.

      • Competitive Cal Grants are the state’s primary grant that provides financial aid for tuition and living expenses for nontraditional students. Undocumented students are eligible for these grants; however, state law requires that Competitive grants may only be disbursed to them after all other eligible applicants (i.e., non-Dreamers) are paid. In 2017-18, only 14% of qualified applicants received a Competitive Cal Grant, meaning the remaining 315,106 students would have to receive a grant before Dreamers could be awarded one.
      • Undocumented students receive the same priority as resident students for other state aid: Entitlement Grants and Middle Class Scholarship Grants. The “take-up” rate for Dreamers accepting these grants is much lower than resident students and varies significantly by sector. In 2017-18 only 69% of CCC Dreamers accepted an Entitlement Grant or Middle Class Scholarship award compared to 97% of Dreamers at the UC.
  • Institutional aid. Undocumented students qualify to receive institutional grants and scholarships such as the State University Grant at the CSU and the UC Grant at the UC and are also eligible for need-based tuition waivers such as the California Promise Grant at the CCC.
  • Work-Study programs. Work-study programs provide grants for part-time work for students with financial need, helping to defray their educational costs while gaining valuable work experience. Though barred from participating in federal work-study programs, some UC campuses offer institutional work-study for undocumented students. An effort to establish the California DREAM Work-Study Program at the UC and CSU failed to pass the Legislature in 2015, as did a 2017 effort to enhance the Cal Grant B program to provide additional aid for Dreamer students engaged in community or volunteer work.
  • Dream Loan program. This program provides undocumented students at the UC and CSU with the option to borrow student loans to help cover the cost of attending college. Beginning in 2020, campuses participating in the Dream Loan program must offer income-based repayment plans for DREAM Loans.
  • State budget allocations. In recent years, the state budget has provided support for undocumented students through various programs. The 2017-18 state budget provided $3 million total for DREAM Loans at UC and CSU and $7 million for emergency student aid for Dreamers at CCC. The 2018-19 state budget provided $21 million in funding for legal services for undocumented students and employees at the CCC, CSU, and UC, and adjusted the CCC funding formula to include provisions for undocumented students.
  • Legal services and protection. Leaders at the CCC, CSU, UC and the California Student Aid Commission have pledged to protect undocumented students and ensure that resources are not used to aid the federal government in deporting students. Many UC and CSU campuses provide support through Dream Centers, liaisons, student organizations, and other on-campus resources. The University of California Immigrant Legal Services Center provides free legal services to undocumented and immigrant students in the UC system.

What Else Can Policymakers Do to Support Undocumented Students?

The absence of any meaningful federal support for Dreamers and the inability for Congress to pass the federal DREAM Act leaves states to shoulder the responsibility to assist undocumented students in pursuing their higher education goals. There are several ways California can strengthen support for Dreamers, such as:

  • Establish a statewide work-study or service incentive program. Permitting students to participate in meaningful work programs would provide much-needed financial support, as well as help students build their professional connections and experience. This could be accomplished by passing the California DREAM Work-Study Program or similar programs at the institutional level, as implemented at some UC campuses.
  • Designate and fund on-campus Dream resources. The Legislature has made several efforts to create Dream Resource Centers and designate liaisons to assist undocumented students, all of which have failed. Such designations would ensure that students on every public campus have access to the support and resources they need to be successful. While several UC and CSU campuses have already designated such support, many CCC’s have not, even though they have a higher proportion of undocumented students.
  • Increase take-up rates for Cal Grants. The “take-up” rate for Dreamers who were awarded an Entitlement Grant or Middle Class Scholarship award is very low. Evaluating why some segments have higher take-up rates than others and identifying ways to increase paid rates would ensure Dreamers are receiving the financial support they need. Having dedicated Dream Resource Liaisons who are knowledgeable about the financial aid available to undocumented students could help address this gap.
  • Expand Competitive Cal Grant eligibility. Since Dreamers are not eligible for federal financial aid, they rely on state support. Permitting undocumented students to apply for and receive Competitive Cal Grants with the same priority as resident students would provide much-needed financial support. Increasing the number of Competitive Cal Grants awarded each year would also increase the odds of a Dreamer receiving an award.

California’s economy is increasingly dependent on a highly educated workforce. Ensuring higher education is accessible and affordable for all students is imperative to meeting workforce demands and strengthening our economy over the long run. California has already established several policies that increase access to financial support for undocumented students, safeguard against immigration enforcement activities on campuses, and provide other resources for Dreamers attending the state’s higher education institutions. California already educates a large number of undocumented students in our K-12 system; ensuring their access to and success in postsecondary education continues that investment. As the new year approaches, California’s new governor has an opportunity to work with state legislative leaders to continue the state’s legacy of protecting undocumented students and can further advance the progress that has been made by enacting policies that support Dreamers’ journey towards a college degree and greater economic opportunity.

— Amy Rose