By Jillian Berman
No matter the circumstances, the college application process can be stressful, but for a certain group of students, it’s particularly anxiety-producing this year.
President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration has put high school seniors who are undocumented or part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in limbo about their future in this country, let alone at an American college. That’s left college counselors, high school guidance counselors, financial aid advisers and others scrambling to provide the best and most updated advice to this group.
“There’s a great deal of uncertainty right now and anxiety amongst these students,” said David Burge, the vice president of enrollment management at George Mason University. “This group already carries a lot of anxiety about any number of facets of their life. Admissions professionals and school counselors are being called upon to exert even more caution and care.”
Right now, the situation is fluid. The Trump administration reportedly drafted an executive order that would end DACA — a program created by the Obama administration in 2012 to allow immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to defer any risk of deportation and get work permits — by not allowing the 750,000 current recipients to renew their documents.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the administration would have updates “very shortly” on DACA in a press briefing earlier this week. Fear that the executive order will become reality combined with Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric has undocumented and “DACAumented” high school seniors hesitant to move forward with the college application process, counselors say. Nearly 32,000 undocumented students are likely to attend a higher education institution each year, according to data from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
“It’s just impacted their entire family because they don’t know what their future is going to look like,” said Karen Gonzalez, the program director at Con Mi Madre, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit organization that helps young Latina women prepare for college. “A lot of them are being discouraged by their family members not to apply because they don’t know if they’re going to be here the next school term.”
There’s some early evidence that the political climate is placing a chill on the college process for undocumented students. In California, which is home to 25% of the nation’s undocumented immigrant population, the number of students who have applied for financing through the state’s DREAM Act — a law that allows undocumented students to access state financial aid, community college free waivers and other grants — appears to be dropping. Last year, about 34,000 students had submitted Dream Act applications by March 2, according to data from the California Student Aid Commission. So far about 12,000 students have submitted applications. That could be because students are waiting until the last minute to apply.
But Nancy Jodaitis, the director of higher education initiatives at Education for Fair Consideration, a nonprofit geared toward helping undocumented young people, suspects a more troubling reason for the drop. “Some of that is just cause for concern about how that information might be shared,” she said. The California Student Aid Commission has promised to protect information submitted as part of a DREAM Act application to the fullest extent of the law.
Undocumented students may find it harder to finance college
In light of the uncertainty, Gonzalez and other college admissions professionals are advising undocumented students not to submit a DACA application if they’re not already part of the program. That’s based on advice from legal experts who worry about how the data the federal government collects for the program could be used to put students and families at risk.
But without DACA, students may find it more difficult to finance college, depending on where they live. In some states, DACA students are eligible for in-state tuition at public colleges, but undocumented students aren’t. Given that undocumented students, whether or not they have DACA, aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, that kind of price hike can be a big burden for students, said Holly Morrow, the vice president for knowledge at UAspire, an organization that helps low-income students apply for financial aid.
Typically, college counselors advise undocumented students to turn to scholarships specific to their situation or state and institutional aid if it’s available (there are some states and colleges that provide financial aid to undocumented students whether or not they are part of DACA), if they can’t come up with the funds to pay for school. But even when these students try to turn in a pinch to the private market — an approach college financial aid professionals often advise students to avoid — they face barriers.
A recent lawsuit filed against Wells Fargo alleged that the bank denied a loan to a DACA student based on her immigration status. In a statement provided to MarketWatch, Wells Fargo said it was disappointed the groups representing the student filed a lawsuit instead of working with the bank to come up with a solution for DACA students seeking to finance their education. Still, the case highlights the challenges undocumented and DACA students face when looking for funding for college — that may only be exacerbated by the political climate.
“I’m not surprised that the banks aren’t serving this population with student loans because they’re not serving this population with any kinds of loans in most cases,” said Deyanira Del Rio, the co-director of the New Economy Project, an organization advocating for low-income New Yorkers. Often banks say they’re hesitant to offer loans or bank accounts to undocumented immigrants, claiming it could put them at risk of unwittingly financing terrorism or provide them with little recourse of the account holder leaves suddenly or is deported, she said.
College counselors face new set of challenges
The anxiety from undocumented students surrounding both financing and attending college over the next four years has meant college counseling professionals have had to stay extra vigilant in monitoring the constantly changing political landscape for how it may affect their students, Gonzalez said.
“I experienced that same sadness and disappointment they’re experiencing,” said Gonzalez, who entered college as an undocumented immigrant in 2008. “But I try to keep as positive as possible because I may be the only positive outlook that these kids are having right now.”
An event for Los Angeles-area college counselors on the best strategies for working with undocumented students under the Trump administration outgrew its location and had to be moved, said Alison DeLuca, the organization’s executive director. About 250 people showed up, she said.
Laura Cuellar, who was in attendance, said she’s using her experience as an undocumented student in the mid-2000s to illustrate to the students she works with that those in their situation have always found ways to succeed even without protections like DACA. “We just remind them of the history behind the movement of undocumented students so that they know that if the worst case scenario were to happen, then there’s other ways to maneuver,” said Cuellar, the program director at KidCity Hope Place, a youth-focused initiative of the Los Angeles United Methodist Urban Foundation.
Despite the anxiety, so far, Gonzalez and other counselors say they’re telling undocumented students to generally approach the process as they would have under any administration (with the exception of not applying for DACA). “At this stage everything is so muddy that there’s really no clarity,” said Felipe Martinez, the immigrant student adviser at the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, a nonprofit scholarship organization. “So students need to proceed as if everything is going to be just the way it was last year.”
That means determining their status as early in high school as possible, so that students can prepare for how that might affect their college options. “Often times students don’t even know that they have undocumented status until they’re starting to plan for college and starting to have conversations about what’s needed to apply for (financial aid),” DeLuca said.
Stay the course
As in past years, undocumented students should also make sure they’re looking for a school that will support them financially — either because it’s in a state that offers in-state tuition to undocumented students or because the school is generous with scholarships — and more broadly, Martinez said. That could include offering resources, like legal help, specifically geared toward undocumented students as well as a campus environment where they can feel welcome and safe.
As the situation evolves, students and families may want to communicate with immigration attorneys to make sure they understand the nuances of various policies and how they will affect them, Burge said. They should also be regularly communicating with schools to see how any school policies, particularly with regards to financial aid, might change in the event of political action, such as an executive order repealing DACA.
Though he understands the anxiety undocumented students may feel about turning over any personal information to colleges right now, students should still apply, Burge said. Most schools have vowed not to turn over any personal data to federal authorities unless required by law, he said. And many don’t ask about immigration status, so they don’t even know if an applicant is undocumented.
The university community largely appears to be supportive of undocumented students in other ways as well. The American Medical Association wrote a letter to members of Congress earlier this month asking them to extend the DACA program, writing “these individuals help contribute to a diverse and culturally responsive physician workforce.” Dozens of colleges have also declared themselves sanctuary campuses though it’s hard to say exactly how far that verbal support extends given that term has no legal definition.
“All of these students should be reassured that they can go to college and obviously — I am biased — should go to college,” Burge said. “There are lots of people who want them to do this and who will help them do this and who will make sure that they are able to be successful.”