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Busted From College Because of Where They Were Born

April 15, 2001|Theodore R. Mitchell | Theodore R. Mitchell is president of Occidental College in Los Angeles

"M" is a high school junior, a student body vice president with a 3.9 grade point average whose course work includes honor classes in math and English; in other words, the kind of prospect that most college admission offices would be glad to see. But few will. This academically able, engaging young woman is undocumented, brought into the country illegally by her parents when she was just a toddler. Since then, she has struggled against daunting odds: parents working two and sometimes three part-time jobs to support her and her siblings; frequent moves, sometimes at a moment's notice, to avoid deportation; a neighborhood environment in which pregnancy, violence and drug abuse are far more common than a high school diploma. "M" has followed the rules. She has grown up in America's public schools, just like an American, yet her citizenship status probably will prevent her from catching the brass ring of opportunity: a college degree.

Not every undocumented student is like "M." But every year, more and more of these high-performing students, children of the 6 million or more undocumented workers in the United States, seek admission to college. Any college president can describe the sensitive fiscal, legal and moral dilemmas this raises. On a practical level, most undocumented students are like "M," children of poor immigrants who need significant financial aid to attend college. But because undocumented students are ineligible for federal and state aid, admitting them is an expensive proposition. Only a few of the most generously endowed colleges and universities can afford to provide the financial aid they need. And even with aid, the status of these students keeps them from resources we take for granted. Last year, one of our faculty members purchased eyeglasses for an undocumented student because the student had no insurance. The legal matters are equally thorny. Many undocu- mented students fear applying to college, worrying that any acknowledgment of their status will put their families at risk.

But the core issue is neither legal nor financial. It is moral. Many undocumented students came to this country at a very young age, the result of decisions over which they had no control. They have grown up as Americans and shared in the traditional American belief that hard work and achievement ought to be rewarded. Like all students in the public school system, they also shared in the implicit promise that if you work hard, keep your nose clean and get good grades, you will get into college.

"But for us, it's just a cruel joke," an undocumented high school student told me. Instead of admission to colleges whose standards they have met or exceeded, undocumented students are rewarded with uncertainty, shame and fear. Even at the best high schools, there is little counseling available to these students and their families for how to navigate through these murky and largely uncharted waters. "During my senior year [in high school], all my friends were talking about scholarships and where they had been accepted," an Occidental student told me. "I just had to swallow my anger and frustration."

Many undocumented students simply give up. "I know one girl," "M" told me in an interview, "who took all these [advanced placement] courses, never missed a day of school and got all A's. When she found out that she couldn't get a scholarship, she just gave up. I haven't seen her in a while; I think she got pregnant and dropped out."

The tragedy is that we allow such waste to occur. The reality is that most colleges, including many public institutions, refuse to accept applications from undocumented students, regardless of their qualifications. Others are willing to take a limited number of outstanding candidates, and a few--chiefly those with the financial wherewithal--have adopted their own version of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Despite such narrow opportunities and against considerable odds, some undocumented students do succeed. One at Occidental recently was accepted to an Ivy League graduate school with a full scholarship. Another Occidental graduate is on his way to medical school.

What these examples suggest is that the social and economic costs of barring otherwise qualified undocumented students from college is profound. These are young men and women whose talents are indisputable and indispensable to our economy and our society. They can become leaders in industry, education and civic life. Unfortunately, even after graduation from college, their lack of citizenship remains a serious obstacle to obtaining a good job.

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