Undocumented students succeed despite daunting challenges

Approximately a third of males, 37% of women report clinically significant levels of anxiety

In a new study that is being called the first of its kind, undocumented immigrants in college are found to be highly stressed and vulnerable to financial hardship, but often succeeding in the face of long odds.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and based on a year-long survey of 909 undergraduate students at a mix of two- and four-year colleges. All were undocumented immigrants. Nearly half of undocumented students attended a four-year public school; 42% were enrolled in a two-year program.

A comprehensive assessment

The study is noteworthy because it is one of the first comprehensive looks at the experience of undocumented college students in America. The Pew Research Center estimates there are as many as 225,000 undocumented immigrants in college, but the true number may be higher. Typically, because of the stigma that undocumented students feel about their immigration status, it has been "very difficult to get good-quality research" on the topic, says study co-author Marcelo Suárez-Orozco.

The UCLA study found that, of the students:

  • 88% arrived in the U.S. before they were 13; and
  • 87% had at least one undocumented parent.

The students came from 55 different countries, but the majority were from Mexico.

Research brief: Strengthening Hispanic student success

Overall, undocumented students reported doing well academically. About 86% of those attending a four-year public college have a GPA greater than 3.0, and 79% of students at two-year colleges say the same.

Unique challenges

The study found undocumented students face many unique stressors which pose challenges to their academic success, but money was the top concern:

  • 61% of students come from families with a household income of less than $30,000;
  • 56% of students were "extremely concerned" that financial issues would interfere with their education; and
  • Over 70% of students who stopped attending classes cited money as the primary cause.

Undocumented students cannot receive federal financial aid.

Around the nation: Should undocumented students pay in-state tuition?

Another major source of stress was fear about deportation. Many, but not all, of the students surveyed were eligible for differed action on deportation, announced by President Obama in 2012. Under the program, those who had been brought to the U.S. illegally as children were granted temporary protection from deportation.

The vast majority of respondents who applied for and received deferred action protection say it had a positive effect on their studies and home lives. For instance, 72% of those covered by the program were able to find work experience while enrolled—but only 28% of those not covered were able to find work.

The challenges of being an undocumented student took a toll on mental wellbeing. The majority said they were worried their friends or family would be deported, and approximately a third of males and 37% of females had personal levels of anxiety that met the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder.

Survey: Most college students grapple with depression

Robert Teranishi, study co-author, says one of the key lessons for college administrators is that undocumented students have unique needs which are not being met. "If these institutions are going to admit these students, then they should find ways to support them and help them succeed," he says (Berner, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/26; Mulhere, Inside Higher Ed, 1/26).

The takeaway: Report finds undocumented students face many unique challenges to succeeding in college, but often manage to do well academically despite them.


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