The Barriers to Higher Education

Undocumented students must navigate a labyrinth of policies from federal, state, and postsecondary institutions to earn a college degree, explains Zenen Jaimes Pérez.

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idea light bulbEach year, millions of students graduate from American high schools. Counted among that throng of proud graduates are about 65,000 undocumented students. Unlike for their classmates, however, this moment of achievement for undocumented graduates is muted by the facts that their path to higher education remains difficult at best and that few of them actually complete a postsecondary education.

In 1982, the Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe decided that all students, regardless of their immigration status, were guaranteed a K-12 education. But the Court’s decision did not extend to higher education. Moreover, Congress and a number of state legislatures have affirmatively attempted to bar—and, in many cases, have prohibited—access to education benefits for undocumented students. These legal barriers add to the social and economic challenges undocumented students face—challenges that make their route to higher education very steep compared with their peers.

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