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Community colleges have traditionally been at the forefront in supporting immigrant students’ access to higher education. In fact, one in four of today’s community college students are immigrants or children of immigrants, while on some campuses the ratio is much higher.
As such, community colleges serve as critical gateways to higher education for the growing immigrant population. They provide access to the education, workforce skills training and English language proficiency that is crucial for immigrants to successfully integrate into and contribute to their communities and the country.
Now more than ever community colleges can play a key role in supporting a growing segment of the immigrant population—young undocumented immigrant youth who came to this country as children and who attended high school here, but who often hit a roadblock when they try to continue their education due to their status and lack of financial resources. Too many of these young people do not even attempt to access higher education because they are often discouraged by the limited prospects for their future educational and career success.
A powerful incentive
The Obama administration’s recently announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program offers new hope for eligible young immigrants by allowing temporary relief from deportation and the ability to apply for legal work permits. The deferred action program, with its educational requirements, offers a powerful incentive for young people to stay in school, further their education and actively contribute to society.
Supporting Educational Access for Undocumented Youth Through Deferred Action: 10 Things Community College Educators Can Do
To be eligible, immigrant youth have to demonstrate, among other criteria, that they are currently enrolled in school, have graduated from high school or earned a GED, or are honorably discharged from the military. The programs that community colleges offer, such as certificates and associate degrees, vocational and career training and English as a second language courses, could satisfy DACA’s educational enrollment criteria.
The potential opportunity to work legally could make an enormous difference in the lives of these young people—for those enrolling in college, it means they will have greater ability to help pay for college and support their families. And for those who have earned their college degrees or credentials, it means they have a greater chance of securing jobs that match their education and skills.
This new program holds great promise for improving the educational and career prospects of undocumented students and can enable these young people to more fully integrate into society. The deferred action initiative represents opportunities for community colleges as well. Colleges can play a major role in educating their current and prospective students about deferred action and getting them connected to the organizations and resources, including legal expertise, that can help.
A more pronounced effort
Some colleges, forced to operate “under the radar” in their support of undocumented students due to anti-immigrant sentiments in their community, may now be encouraged to be more open and proactive in their measures to serve undocumented students due to the deferred action initiative.
Community college leaders and professionals should ensure their campuses provide a welcoming and supportive environment for undocumented students. The emotional and academic support of parents, instructors, counselors and peers is critical to these students’ success. We must create environments on campus and in the classroom where students can thrive and know that it is safe to study, learn, grow and excel. Colleges need to train all key front-line staff in admissions, registrar, financial aid and counseling so that they understand the new DACA program, and support students in their requests for transcripts and other relevant records they will need to demonstrate their eligibility.
Deferred action rules could lead to increased enrollment
Counselors must better understand the unique challenges faced by undocumented students. They must be prepared to assist immigrant students and their families in navigating the educational system and accessing the community college programs that best suit their needs. Colleges can improve outreach in the community and in middle and high schools by working closely with teachers and counselors in their local school districts to promote the college readiness of students and ensure they have the support services and resources to succeed.
In addition, colleges should increase their fundraising efforts to provide scholarships when out-of-state tuition rates are prohibitive and when even reduced, in-state tuition may be out of reach for many undocumented students. Scholarship-based internships that incorporate community service activities can increase undocumented students’ civic engagement, help pay for college and allow students to gain valuable work experience and skills.
Alternative instructional approaches, such as content-based adult basic education and English as a second language courses that are integrated with academic programs or career pathways, can be especially valuable for nontraditional adult students who may lack a high school diploma or GED and have been absent from the educational system for many years. Colleges need to ensure these opportunities are available for late-entry students, particularly now since such programs could meet the “currently in school” eligibility requirements stated under the DACA initiative.
Taking a team approach
In many cases, community colleges already serve significant numbers of undocumented students and work in collaboration with student organizations often led by undocumented immigrant youth and other community organizations that serve the immigrant community. These partnerships have helped foster an environment of inclusion and have raised awareness that the education of undocumented students benefits us all. In such environments, undocumented students serve as effective role models and mentors in the classroom, and as strong advocates for immigration reform, including in-state tuition polices and federal DREAM Act legislation.
At a growing number of community colleges, these students excel academically and serve in leadership roles in a variety of academic and extracurricular activities. They are making a positive impact in all areas of campus and community life.
The DACA program falls far short of much needed broader immigration reform and a federal DREAM Act that would include an educational or military service pathway to legal status and citizenship. Nonetheless, it raises hopes for the eventual passage of DREAM Act and immigration reform legislation, and, in the meantime, opens pathways to higher education, better jobs and greater involvement in society that had been previously blocked.
No doubt there are challenges and costs involved in serving undocumented students, but these are far outweighed by the opportunities and benefits. Community colleges are committed to serving students of all ages and backgrounds, and providing access to those who might not otherwise have the opportunity or means to continue their education is inherent in our mission.
At this time in our nation’s history, undocumented students need and deserve our support to succeed—and we need their talents and skills as well! The educational success of these immigrant youth is critical to reaching our national college completion goals and ensuring America’s future economic growth and social vibrancy. As educators, we should be demanding nothing less.
Hankin is president of Westchester Community College in New York. The college serves as the host institution of the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education, which has recently released the report, "Dreaming Big: What Community Colleges Can Do to Help Undocumented Immigrant Youth Achieve Their Potential."
(Below, an informational video on the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.)
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