The Children of Undocumented Immigrants Can Attend College Now, But How Will They Pay for It?

Thanks to an executive action by President Barack Obama, Dreamers – the sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants who have been in the US since they were children - now have the ability to attend college. But too many aren’t pursuing higher education because they don’t have the means to pay for it.

According to the US Department of Education, 85% of all full time students get some form of financial aid. But for most non-citizens, including these Dreamers, this aid is nearly non-existent. This is largely because undocumented students (including Dreamers) by law aren’t eligible, as all their classmates are, for federal grants or even loans to fund their education, which is by far the largest source of support for low-income students’ college education.

While many juggle jobs, often helping support their families and scraping together college hours one course at a time when they can accumulate funds, this is a slow, painful and often impossible way to finish school. It took Cristina Constantino four years to finish a two-year degree, getting up at 5 am to make it to class and working in a restaurant when she wasn’t in school. There are at least 550,000 of these Dreamers in the US, and perhaps as many as 1.9m. Many of them, despite their best efforts, are going to wind up trapped in the low-income jobs waiting for those without college degrees.

Objections to helping Dreamers get a college degree make little economic sense. By 2020, 65% of all US jobs will require some education beyond high school. At the current production rate, the United States will fall short by 5m workers with postsecondary education by 2020. Cultivating a more educated workforce is essential to the nation’s economic future as baby boomers leave the job market and our economy increasingly requires skilled workers. This isn’t just a mission for Dreamers’ higher education, but a mission for the nation’s future workforce and economic development.

Many of these young adults are highly motivated and talented individuals who want nothing more than to go to college and contribute to the economic and social richness of our nation. Many graduate at the top of their class. Many get 4.0 grade point averages. They do community service. They play sports. Some have struggled to complete their high school education, all the while working to help support their families. They want to be teachers, nurses, lawyers, engineers, veterinarians and accountants. They want to start businesses and help other people. The barriers they face are beyond their control.

These young people come from El Salvador, Mexico, Poland, Korea and almost 80 other countries. If we help educate these students, we can create a powerful resource for their communities and for all of us in this country. If we fail to do so, we lose a whole generation of motivated talent and ability.

Over the past 25 years, we have worked to make scholarships available to low-income students, and we’ve seen the transformation a college degree can make in the life not only of an individual, but of his or her entire family. With a scholarship, Cristina Constantino plans to finish her BA degree over the next two years and plans to go to graduate school. Korean-born Dreamer Grace Couch dropped out of college for years when juggling full-time work and nighttime classes became impossible; today, at age 29 and with scholarship help, she is starting a nursing career. “I am planning to follow my professors’ footsteps in obtaining my masters and eventually a PhD in nursing. I want to become a nurse educator and a leader to speak up for our immigrant and minority populations,” she told her graduating class at City University of New York in May.

These students want to learn, to grow, to contribute. The promise of a better future for these young people is also the promise of our own country’s future – their education is an investment we would be foolish not to make.

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