How Obama's new immigration rules affect higher ed

Still no federal financial aid for undocumented students

President Obama announced on Thursday night several steps to reform the country's immigration system, several of which have important implications for higher education.

The initiative that will have the greatest impact on colleges and universities is the expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program. DACA was originally instituted in 2012 and covered undocumented immigrants who had no serious criminal history, came to the U.S. before their 16th birthdays, were not older than 30, have lived in the states for five continuous years, and either completed high school, earned a GED, served in the military, or were enrolled in school. Individuals covered by DACA could apply for work permits and would not be deported for at least two years.

Under the new rules, the age cap will be lifted and so-called "deferred action" on deportation will be expanded to undocumented parents of U.S. citizens. Overall, the changes will protect up to 5 million immigrants from deportation—in addition to providing them with work permits and other identifying documents.

However—legally speaking—individuals covered by the deferred action program will still be undocumented. This means that they will not be automatically eligible for in-state tuition at public institutions across the country.

At least 18 states have laws that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. Other states, such as Arizona, have passed regulations that specifically extend residential tuition benefits to individuals covered by DACA attending some two-year institutions.

Though they cannot receive federal financial aid, individuals covered by deferred action will be given social security numbers, allowing potential students to fill out FAFSA and receive their Estimated Family Contribution number—which can then be used to help calibrate how much institutional aid to award a student.

Work permit access expanded

The expansion of work permits for undocumented students has implications for student success and advising. Many undocumented students do not complete their studies for financial reasons, often stemming from their inability to find jobs. With work permits, these students will be more likely to support themselves financially and continue their studies.

Furthermore, new fields of study and career paths may now be open to undocumented students. Traditionally, fields like health care have been unavailable to undocumented immigrants because of background checks and other documentation requirements. But now, these students can pursue credentials in these fields with more confidence in their employment prospects.

The eligibility requirements for DACA are also likely to drive more applicants into the education system. Individuals who came to the U.S. before their 16th birthdays but have not obtained high-school credentials can qualify themselves for the program simply by passing a GED test. Expanding those eligible for this could open up college access to a wave of new students.

Changes for international students

The president also announced changes to make it easier for international students enrolled in STEM programs to work legally in the country post-graduation, via an expansion of the Optional Practical Training program, which provides temporary work authorization to international students for between 12 and 29 months after graduation. 

In announcing the expansion, the White House said students will need to maintain "stronger ties" with the school they graduated from. Until the Department of Homeland Security clarifies how the expanded program will operate, it is unclear exactly what that means for colleges and universities (Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education [subscription required], 11/21; Redden/Stratford, Inside Higher Ed, 11/21; Anderson, Washington Post, 11/20; Department of Homeland Security, 11/21; Calvert, PBS, 11/20).


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