Interrupting the Cycle of Worrying:Financial Implications of the California DREAM Act in the Lives of Undocumented College Students
Undocumented students are barred from accessing financial aid and face enormous obstacles in completing college (Gonzales, 2009). However, in 2011, California passed the California DREAM Act that granted undocumented students access to state financial aid (California Student Aid Commission, 2016). The purpose of this study was to examine the financial implications of accessing state financial aid on undocumented students' lives through the analysis of 18 in-depth interviews with undocumented undergraduates attending a California four-year public institution. Results revealed that the [End Page 336] CA DREAM Act significantly relieved the financial burdens associated with tuition and promoted undocumented students' ability to continue their postsecondary education.
Undocumented, College Students, California DREAM Act, Higher Education, Financial Aid
Although nearly 65,000 undocumented students graduate U.S. high schools every year, only 5-10% of these students attend college (Mendoza, 2010; Passel, 2003). As undocumented students come of age, they are restricted from engaging in many normative rites of passage such as obtaining a driver's license, opening a bank account, and filling out college applications because of their legal status (Gonzales, 2011). This can be a harsh realization for many undocumented students, especially since they had largely been protected from this sense of exclusion due to Plyler vs. Doe, in which the Supreme Court guaranteed undocumented students the right to access a K-12 public education (Olivas, 2004). Unfortunately, this same right did not extend to higher education. Most undocumented students are also low-income and first generation college students (Passel & Cohn, 2009). Not only must they overcome challenges associated with living in impoverished urban neighborhoods, attending under-resourced schools, and having a "lack of college knowledge" (Abrego, 2006; Garcia & Tierney, 2011, p. 2769), but their legal status also further complicates their ability to navigate college. In particular, they are restricted from accessing most forms of financial aid (Abrego & Gonzales, 2010), which places a significant barrier to college access and persistence. As undocumented undergraduates or "undocuscholars" are then excluded from various opportunities (Suárez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, Teranishi, & Suárez-Orozco, 2011), many "lower their aspirations" (Abrego, 2006, p. 225) and experience high levels of anxiety, isolation, and stress (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015). [End Page 337]
Thus, with today's polarizing sociopolitical context regarding immigration, it is necessary to examine how various policy initiatives have attempted to expand postsecondary educational opportunities for undocumented students. Financial aid policy, which has historically excluded undocumented students, is especially important to evaluate since it is a critical form of support for making higher education more accessible to minority youth (Bozick, Miller, & Kaneshiro, 2015; Paulsen & St. John, 2002). Although in some states undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition, such as with AB540 in California, undocumented students are still less likely to complete their Bachelor's degree within four years even when controlling for background characteristics such as full-time enrollment, college choice, and high school achievement (Conger & Chellman, 2013). This suggests that in-state tuition is not enough to support undocumented students' educational trajectories through college as they continue to face financial barriers. Therefore, as an attempt to expand educational opportunity, California passed the California DREAM Act in 2011, which granted undocumented students access to state and privately funded financial aid (CSAC, 2016). California has the largest undocumented population in the U.S. (Passel & Cohn, 2011); therefore, this policy's consequences on undocuscholars' lives warrant further exploration, especially since the CA DREAM Act was a significant step forward in promoting undocumented students' ability to access higher education. Thus, the purpose of this study is to examine the financial implications of accessing state financial aid on the lives of undocumented college students attending a California public university.
For undocumented students, the decision to attend university involves a careful consideration and examination of the costs to attend (Chen, 2008). More generally for marginalized students, the decision to drop out is often influenced by the impact of financial aid on tuition (Chen, 2008). This also applies to undocumented students, but their decision to attend and persist through college is further complicated by the limitations posed by their documentation status.
As such, a study of undocumented students and higher education necessitates a theoretical model that examines economic and sociological perspectives (Perna, 2006), but also one that evaluates political policies that affect the decision to attend or not to attend a university. Perna (2006) suggests a conceptual model that looks at four contextual layers on a student's college-choice decision: habitus, school and community context, higher education context, and the social, economic, and policy contexts. Although the interplay between these four layers plays a crucial role in the college decision-making process for college students in general, undocumented students face unique [End Page 338] challenges in navigating the intersection of these contexts. Much like other first-generation college students, undocumented students may lack the social and cultural capital needed to navigate the college-going process (Garcia & Tierney, 2011). In addition, their college experiences are complicated by Perna's (2006) fourth layer (social, economic, & policy context) as the policy contexts can vary from time-to-time and place-to-place within the U.S. National and local policies may significantly restrict and inform undocumented students' college choices. Therefore, this study examines how changing a state financial aid policy can impact the experiences of undocumented college students. What follows is a review of the national and local policies that affected the participants of this study.
Federal Policies Impacting Higher Education Access for Undocumented Students
In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled against the Texas legislature that tried to prevent undocumented children from accessing a free K-12 public education (Olivas, 2004). Known as Plyler vs. Doe, the court majority argued that children, irrespective of their immigration status, have the right to a public education, and by denying them the opportunity to an education, there was a possibility of creating a permanent underclass of residents in the U.S. (American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 2003). Yet, this right to public education did not extend beyond high school for undocumented students.
While the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) barred undocumented individuals from qualifying for state and federal benefits including financial aid, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) further outlined that undocumented students, based on their state residency status, cannot access postsecondary benefits unless their peers with authorized status are eligible for it (López & López, 2010; Olivas, 2004). Although immigration critics argued that this essentially meant that undocumented students cannot access any type of postsecondary benefit, advocates claimed that these laws granted states with the power to determine the state residency status of undocumented students and to pass legislation such as in-state tuition eligibility laws (Olivas, 2004). Consequently, state-level legislation, which can vary significantly, primarily determined whether an undocumented individual was recognized as a state resident. For instance, states that have expanded in-state tuition policies have defined state residency as graduating from an in-state high school and residing in the state for a prescribed amount of years instead of upon legal status (Russell, 2011). PRWORA and IIRIRA's ambiguous language allowed states to have the power to expand or restrict undocumented students' access to higher education. [End Page 339]
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
In 2012, President Obama issued an executive action announcing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program, which was aimed to address the challenges that undocumented youth who arrived to the United States as young children face as they come of age. The program granted beneficiaries temporary relief from deportation proceedings and renewable two-year work authorizations (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 2014). Through DACA, many undocumented or DACAmented students were able to participate in developmental rites of passage such as obtaining a driver's license and accessing better employment opportunities, (Gonzales & Bautista-Chavez, 2014; Gonzales, Roth, Brant, Lee, & Valdivia, 2016). Nonetheless, DACA's limitation as a temporary, liminal status places undocumented youth in a form of "permanent parole" (Mena Robles & Gomberg-Muñoz, 2016, p. 49). Because this program lacked any legislative permanency, DACAmented students' fear of the program's termination came to fruition when current Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared an end to DACA on September 4, 2017. Since October 5, 2017, no new or renewal applications will be processed or accepted by USCIS. As of the writing of this article, legislators thus far have been unsuccessful in negotiating ways to permanently extend the protections of DACA. However, by being able to access better employment opportunities, these students were able to earn better wages and qualify for additional funding opportunities, which slightly improved their ability to access a postsecondary education (Gonzales et al., 2016). Yet it is important to note that DACA does not allow undocumented students access to federal financial aid, including grants and work-study opportunities, as well as state aid in most states. Although DACA alleviated some challenges facing undocumented students, it did not resolve most of the financial barriers they still faced when pursuing a postsecondary degree. With the program's termination in September and recent lawsuits that have temporarily revived the program, the future of DACA remains bleak as DACA recipients are facing growing uncertainties in the current sociopolitical climate.
Financial Aid and In-State Tuition Policies
Financial aid includes access to state and federal grants, subsidized loans, tax credits, and work-study programs among others (Dynarski & Scott-Clayton, 2013). For many low-income and minority students, access to financial aid is strongly related to increased access to a postsecondary education and higher levels of college persistence (Gándara & Contreras, 2009; Goldrick-Rab, Kelchen, Harris, & Benson, 2016; Perna, 1998; St. John, 1991). In a randomized evaluation of a grant aid program, Angrist, Autor, Hudson, and Pallais (2014) found that receiving the grant was not only linked to an increase in second year enrollment, but it also allowed recipient students to register for more credit hours. In fact, all forms of financial aid had a [End Page 340] stronger effect in increasing college enrollment among minority students compared to white students (St. John & Noell, 1989), and an increase in $1000 of Pell Grants is related to an increase in college enrollment by two to four percentage points (Goldrick-Rab, Harris, Kelchen, & Benson, 2012, 2016). As Dynarski and Scott-Clayton (2013) point out, "money matters for college access" (p. 79).
However, due to federal and state policies, undocumented students are barred from accessing most forms of financial aid (Gonzales, 2009). To apply for federal financial aid, students are required to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA collects financial information about the students and their families to determine their expected family contribution towards college expenses, their financial need, and the amount and types of aid that they qualify for. Many colleges and institutions will also use the FAFSA to determine students' institutional and state financial aid packages. However, according to the Federal Student Aid Commission, undocumented students are not eligible to complete the FAFSA and thus cannot access most forms of financial aid. As such, two-year colleges have served as an initial gateway to higher education in order to save on tuition costs (Valenzuela, Perez, Perez, Montiel, & Chaparro, 2015). Consequently, immigration advocates and undocumented students have lobbied for in-state tuition laws in many states to make higher education in general more affordable and accessible to undocumented students, who largely come from low-income households (Passel & Cohn, 2009). As of 2015, nearly sixteen states, including California, and four state university systems permit undocumented students to be eligible for in-state tuition (Mendoza & Shaikh, 2015). Contrary to critics' arguments, in-state resident tuition (ISRT) laws have not significantly reduced state revenue collection (National Immigration Law Center, 2006). In fact, the Texas Comptroller determined that undocumented immigrants residing in Texas generated "more taxes and other revenue than the state spends on them" (Strayhorn, 2006, p. 1).
Due to ISRT laws, researchers have noted that high school dropout rates for undocumented students in these states have declined (Potochnick, 2014). Additionally, Mexican-born non-citizen youth residing in states with ISRT policies are 65% more likely to remain in high school, whereas students residing in states with restrictive policies are 49% less likely to stay in school (Bozick & Miller, 2013). Although undocumented students are more likely to enroll in college, complete associate's degrees, have higher college credit completion rates, and maintain higher grades point average than their peers with authorized status, their four-year college completion rates have not improved as a result of ISRT policies (Conger & Chellman, 2013; Darolia & Potochnick, 2015; Dickson & Pender, 2013; Flores, 2010). This suggests that ISRT policies are not enough to support undocumented students' educational trajectories in college. [End Page 341]
Paying in-state tuition can still be a tremendous challenge for most undocumented youth, particularly as the majority come from low-income households. College affordability has always been an important and determining factor in minority students' ability to access higher education (Contreras, 2011), and since undocumented youth cannot access many forms of financial aid, simply providing in-state tuition does not ease the burden of affording rising tuition and educational expenses. For this reason, many undocumented students enroll in community colleges, which may serve as their only affordable pathway into higher education (Biswas, 2005; Rivas, Pérez, Alvarez, & Solorzano, 2007; Valenzuela et al., 2015).
However, it is important to point out that in one study, Bozick, Miller, and Kaneshiro (2015) note that there was no difference in college enrollment among Mexican-born, non-citizen youth when comparing states that offer in-state tuition versus those that also provide financial aid. This suggests that there may be additional barriers that undocumented students face other than the availability of financial aid that impacts their ability to enter the college pipeline. Since many undocumented students are first-generation college students, they often lack knowledge about how to apply for financial aid (Garcia & Tierney, 2011). Their ability to actually apply for and access financial aid is further complicated by the fact that they must keep the restrictions of their undocumented status in mind as they navigate an already highly complex and confusing financial aid system that is impacted by local, state, and federal policies (Dynarsky & Scott-Clayton, 2013). Yet, there is still very little research that qualitatively examines such nuanced effects of expanding financial aid to undocumented students. The educational outcomes of undocumented youth should not "depend upon the state in which they live" (Nguyen & Serna, 2014, p. 12), and this warrants an analysis of undocu-friendly financial aid policies in states such as California to illustrate the need to expand such policies across the nation as well as the barriers that undocumented students may face in accessing these policies.
California State Policies: AB540 and the CA DREAM Act
With the largest undocumented immigrant population, California has a contentious history in passing legislation regarding undocumented immigrants' ability to access various resources and services. This includes controversial proposals such as the now overturned Proposition 187, which was a ballot initiative that was initially passed by voters in 1994 to ban undocumented residents from accessing social services, including healthcare and public education (Rincón, 2010). Although in the mid-1980s, California had ruled in Leticia "A" v. Regents of the University of California that undocumented students are eligible for in-state tuition and state financial aid, this decision was overturned in 1995 (Rincón, 2010). Nonetheless, continued student and community advocacy resulted in California becoming one of [End Page 342] the first states to pass in-state tuition through a bill known as AB540 in 2001 (Mendoza & Shaikh, 2015). This legislation granted nonresident tuition exemptions to any student who attended a California high school for three years, graduated or obtained a General Educational Development certificate, and signed an affidavit promising their commitment to change their legal status at the earliest opportunity (López & López, 2010). Moreover, California legislators passed the California DREAM Act in 2011 as two separate bills: AB130, which permitted AB540-eligible undocumented students to apply for institutional aid at public universities, and AB131, which allowed students to receive state-funded financial aid such as Cal Grants (Dorador, 2015). As of 2015, only six states, California, Texas, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, allow undocumented students access to state financial aid (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2015).
The passage of the California DREAM Act was an immense victory for immigration advocates and student activists. Going into effect in 2013, it granted undocumented students access to much-needed state and institutional financial support. To be eligible, students must meet the AB540 requirements, reside in California with a U-Visa (temporary visa granted to victims of certain crimes), or reside in California with a Temporary Protected Status (granted to individuals whose home countries are experiencing conditions that makes returning difficult). It is important to note that being eligible for the California DREAM Act is not linked to having DACA status. Students must then complete the California DREAM Act Application (CADAA), which does not require a Social Security number unlike the FAFSA (CSAC, 2017). Similar to the FAFSA, based on student and family income information collected in the CADAA, students' financial need and expected family contribution is determined as they are considered for a variety of state and institutional financial aid opportunities such as the Cal Grants, Chafee Foster Youth Grant, University Grants, California Community College Board of Governors Fee Waivers, and the DREAM Loan (See table 1) (Dorador, 2015). For instance, students with a certain minimum GPA who meet state-established income ceilings may be eligible to receive either the state-based Entitlement Cal Grant A (provides support for tuition and fees) or B (provides support for books and living expenses). Through the Cal Grant A, students may be awarded up to $5,472 at California State University system and $12,192 at the University of California schools.
Although there is literature on the effects of AB540 on the lives of undocumented students (Abrego, 2008), very little scholarly work has focused on the immediate and statewide consequences of the California DREAM Act. For instance, using a national survey sample of Mexican-born, non-U.S. citizen youth, Bozick, Miller, and Kaneshiro (2015) found a decline in postsecondary enrollment within states that explicitly deny in-state tuition to [End Page 343]
[End Page 344] undocumented students. However, increasing financial aid access has been demonstrated to promote college persistence and attendance while decreasing dropout rates, particularly for minority students (Bettinger, 2010; GoldrickRab et al., 2012, 2016; St. John, 1991). Thus, there is a need to examine the nuanced effects of the California DREAM Act on the lives of undocumented students who have historically been barred from such forms of financial aid. More specifically, this study aims to explore the financial implications of the CA DREAM Act and the ways in which accessing state financial aid impacted the college experiences of 18 undocumented students. Through the analysis of in-depth interviews with undocumented students attending a public four-year institution, we examine the following research questions:
1. How does access to financial aid affect undocumented students' experiences and pathways in college?
2. What were the financial affordances and limitations of the CA DREAM Act?
3. In what ways did these affordances and limitations affect the lives of undocumented college students?
The findings presented in this paper are part of a larger undocumented student Participatory Action Research Project (Katsiaficas et al., 2016) conducted during the summer of 2014. The program objectives were to gather and analyze foundational information about undocumented student experiences on campus, provide in-depth research and graduate school preparation training for four undergraduate student researchers, produce policy reports with specific recommendations for improvement to key stakeholders at various campus spaces and offices, and empower student researchers and promote undocumented community-driven responses to campus climate issues through creative social and digital media.
Research on the lives of undocumented students is often produced by citizen researchers who are not undocumented. We found that Participatory Action Research (PAR) was particularly well suited to address this gap (Tolman & Brydon-Miller, 2001). The PAR framework guided our investigation through three main tenets: Inclusive process with individuals that have a diversity of viewpoints placed in socio-political cultural context; fostering an interactive link between researchers and participants where expertise is shared; involving community members in methodological decisions to promote meaningful goals of transformational social change (Mertens, 2003; Tolman & Brydon-Miller, 2001). This project allowed undocumented [End Page 345]
[End Page 346] youth to produce research and share findings on the experiences of other undocumented students with the support of ally graduate students and faculty members. The research team consisted of four undergraduate researchers who were undocumented, and three graduate student researchers and allies. With the guidance, but not control of the three graduate students, the four undergraduate researchers chose the topics and shaped the conversations they wanted to add about the undocumented community.
The team of four PAR researchers contacted, recruited, and conducted semi-structured interviews with 18 undocumented college students at a large public university in California, which will be referred to as the California Public University in this paper. Each of the four researchers interviewed someone they did not know, in order to make the participants comfortable in sharing their stories. Participants participated in semi-structured interviews that lasted between 1-2 hours, and they were compensated with a $20 gift card for their time. Participants were asked a series of questions regarding topics including financial aid, pre-college and college experiences, social support, mental health, and belonging. More specifically, students were asked questions about the factors that influenced their decision to attend this university, their ability to access funding and financial aid, and other financial supports or barriers they experienced. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed, which served as the primary source of data for our analysis. Each interviewer transcribed their interview, being sure to change names to protect the identity of the participants. After checking for inter-rater-reliability, the researchers coded their respective sections and found the relevant themes.
A sample of N = 18 interviews with undocumented undergraduates were collected using snowballing sampling technique. In order to be eligible to participate in this study, participants must have been enrolled as an undergraduate student at this public four-year institution in the last year, were between the ages of 18 and 30, and identified as an undocumented, DREAMer, or DACAmented student. Participants were recruited from a large public university in California using personal contacts, e-mail, and social networking sites. A total of 18 undocumented first-generation college students with an age range from 19 to 25 years old (Mage = 21.6, SD = 1.5 years) comprised our sample of eight males and ten females from Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia. In terms of students' regions of birth, 14 students were born in Latin American nations, 3 students were born in Asia, and one student was born in Europe. Of the students from Latin American countries, their countries of birth included Mexico, El Salvador, Belize, and Ecuador. With regards to college paths, eight participants were transfer students who [End Page 347] initially attended a community college before enrolling at California Public University. Due to financial constraints, undocumented students often enroll at community colleges to save money before transferring to a four-year institution (Valenzuela et al., 2015). The other eight participants were non-transfer students who directly enrolled at this four-year university. Additionally, 14 undocuscholars had received DACA and were eligible to work, and thirteen students were the first in their families to attend college. The sample represented a diverse pool of undocumented students on campus with regards to transfer history, DACA status, family migration history, and living situation. However, complete demographic information was missing for one participant.
Although the specific college expenses for each participant was not collected, especially since it would vary depending on housing, transportation, living situation, course of study, and other factors, the estimated resident tuition and fees in the 2013-2014 academic year at this university was $14,227.37 for continuing undergraduate students and $14,392.37 for new undergraduate students. Additionally, the California DREAM Act went into effect in 2013, and eight participants began their first semester at California Public University in that year.
An open-coding process using phrases as the units of analysis was employed (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). First, codes were established around themes that emerged from on-going analysis of the interview transcripts. For the purposes of this paper, we exclusively focused on students' responses to questions that directly asked them to describe their financial experiences before and after the California DREAM Act. These themes were compared and integrated into a single comprehensive list of coding categories (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The coders refined the coding scheme by discussing the meanings and relationships of each coding category, including sub-codes, and established rules for assigning codes to phrases (Mattis et al., 2008). A codebook was established that included exemplary quotes that represented each code. The quotes were then randomly arranged on a spreadsheet, and two coders independently assigned codes to each statement. Thus, inter-rater reliability of 85.7% was established before coding the entire data set. Lastly, we drew conclusions from our codes to reveal super-ordinate themes stemming from our initial codes (See Table 3). We compiled the coding data using MAX QDA11 (MAXQDA, 2014) and created graphs, charts, and visual representations of the prevalent themes to aid in our analysis. We further discussed the meanings of different patterns that emerged from the data set and engaged in critical dialogue to understand how to best capture the meanings of the data and its relation to larger research questions. Although we did not initially set out to compare the experiences of transfer and non-transfer [End Page 348]
[End Page 349] students, it was through this open-coding process and a dialogue of the data that we noticed recurring nuanced differences between the responses and educational experiences of these two groups within the context of the California DREAM Act. For this reason, we went back through our codes and divided the participants into the transfer and non-transfer groups in order to better organize our data and capture these differences in the findings.
The lack of access to financial aid is one of the most significant barriers that undocumented college students face as they navigate college (Abrego & Gonzales, 2010; Perez, 2009). Throughout the interviews, it was evident that participants' experiences before and after the implementation of the California DREAM Act differed primarily because of their ability to access financial aid. When students described their experiences prior to the CA DREAM Act, some of the recurring themes that emerged in students' narratives were the persistent financial obstacles they faced and the constant uncertainty they felt as they navigated through college. Interestingly, transfer (N=9) and non-transfer students (N=9) assessed their postsecondary pathways differently. For the transfer students, college affordability was the primary factor that determined their choice to first attend community college, as suggested in the work of Valenzuela et al. (2015). For non-transfer students, they utilized multiple sources to piece together their tuition bills including relying on scholarships and family support. However, after the CA DREAM Act was implemented, all participants reported a sense of relief from the worry of finding ways to pay their tuition. Although the CA DREAM Act relieved some of the students' financial burdens, it had limitations as many students still reported a number of unremedied financial responsibilities.
Financial Obstacles Before the CA DREAM Act
When describing their experiences prior to the CA DREAM Act, many participants identified the financial barriers they faced in attending college and completing their undergraduate degree, but slightly different factors emerged when comparing transfer and non-transfer students' postsecondary experiences. Nonetheless, every participant reported finding 'creative' ways to pay for school, and they often utilized multiple sources to raise the money necessary to afford their college expenses. As one participant, Victor, a White, 21-year-old male, pointed out:
I came in with a lot of scholarships from high school, and money I've saved, and money I have got from people. But that was just enough for me to pay for one quarter, exactly one quarter… So, funding was never something that [I was] sure of…maybe me speaking for others, we came in without knowing [End Page 350] what we were going to do…So the first quarter, I paid, I was working the entire time I was here, and the next quarter we had to borrow money from a family's friend, and I kept working, and the quarter after that I couldn't go to school.
Victor pieced together several scholarships, worked to earn money, and borrowed money from others to be able to afford to attend school. Participants described an immense amount of uncertainty as students employed different strategies to raise money quarter by quarter. In many cases, participants were compelled to take a quarter off, also known as stopping-out, because they did not have the financial resources to continue their undergraduate studies without breaking to earn money just as Victor was forced to do after managing to piece together his tuition for a few quarters.
Similar to Victor's experiences, every participant mentioned confronting financial barriers irrespective of whether they initially attended a community college or directly enrolled at a four-year institution. Although they all received in-state tuition through California's AB540 bill, this policy was not enough to help alleviate the financial obstacles that they faced. For many of the undocuscholars in this study, in-state tuition was still too steep of a cost, which compelled them to find different ways to remain enrolled in college and afford their tuition bills. For half of the participants, one such strategy was to first attend community college instead of enrolling at a four-year institution. This can be the more affordable option since tuition and fees at public universities tend to be more than twice the costs of community college (Provasnik & Planty, 2008). Nonetheless, the other half of the participants still directly enrolled at a four-year public university despite the steeper costs. Although both groups of students sought to continue their education after high school, they made different decisions as they entered the college pipeline. At a time when the CA DREAM Act had not been enacted, their differing college choices are significant since they did not have access to financial aid. Furthermore, it was evident in the findings that the transfer and non-transfer students in this study assessed their experiences and financial hardships slightly differently as they navigated through college.
The participants in this study who initially attended community college identified how community college was the more affordable option after they realized the financial barriers. Typically, if financial aid is not available to lower-income students, they are more likely to attend lower-priced options (Perna, 1998). In this study, nearly 60.3% of the responses explaining each participant's decision to attend community college focused on college costs and affordability. For example, Jaime, a 21-year-old Latino, described his realization about the college costs:
And I initially in high school, I was always the student that did more than expected because I wanted to go to university right after high school, but then [End Page 351] it hit me like when I was applying to colleges how expensive it was because at that point, there was no California DREAM Act or anything. So I was going to pay out of pocket all the money. So it hit me like how much of [an] impact it was to be undocumented… It did make me feel sad. I felt like all my work in high school was kind of thrown away.
It was not until Jaime started applying to colleges that he realized just how much a four-year institution costs especially since he had to pay out-of-pocket. Despite wanting to enroll in a university, the steep college expenses and the lack of access to financial aid compelled him to attend community college. Many other participants also described how they had to forego their hopes of directly attending a four-year institution because of the financial costs. For instance, Martin, a 20-year-old Latino, admitted how he had to give up his goal of attending an elite public university:
I'm not going to lie, but when I couldn't come the first time, I really got sad. It just opened up that I really want to go there… And then [my counselor] told me that she basically went over the financial stuff, and it basically hit me that, "Oh crap. I can't do anything about it unless I get some kind of scholarship which I didn't." I was really bitter my first year at community college, but I, I went through it.
Jaime and Martin were left sad and bitter because their goals of attending a four-year university were out of reach due to the enormous costs. Martin discussed how he had to deal with the emotional consequences of coming to terms with this harsh realization. This initial disillusionment and sadness is characteristic of undocumented students who begin to understand how their status excludes them from many opportunities (Gonzales, 2011).
Nonetheless, community college provided an affordable alternative that allowed these students to continue their postsecondary studies. Alejandra, a 22-year-old Latina, acknowledged that, "Thankfully community college is a lot cheaper than [university] tuition, and so even though I did have to pay tuition at my community college out-of-pocket, it was at a lot lesser rate, and even then it was kind of a struggle at time[s]." Although community college was more affordable, it was still a challenge to pay tuition as many participants had to work long hours to afford their college costs.
Although participants admitted foregoing their hopes of directly attending a four-year institution, some did not give up on those goals altogether. For instance, Esperanza, a 22-year-old Latina explained, "I knew that obviously I couldn't afford it, but I still, that was still a goal for me…So when I did go to community college, I knew I was gonna transfer. I didn't know how long it was going to take me, but I knew I was going to transfer." Esperanza was committed to pursuing an undergraduate degree, but she needed financial support to transfer, and the CA DREAM Act allowed her to receive financial [End Page 352] aid to be able to enroll at a four-year university. In fact, eight out of the nine transfer students in this study enrolled at California Public University in 2013, which was also when the California DREAM Act went into effect. Financial worries seemed to be the most salient concern that these students reported when they described their experiences before the enactment of the CA DREAM Act.
Undocuscholars in this study who directly attended a four-year institution primarily identified the following reasons for their choice: family support/goals, undocumented student support, and personal preferences/hopes to attend a university. Similar to the students who attended community college, several undocumented student participants explained that they always had a goal to attend a four-year university. For instance, Victor emphasized the work he had dedicated towards preparing himself for college:
I didn't want to give up the work that I have put in to get to here by… and I'm not trying to diminish anyone who has gone to community college because it's a good route and thinking back, I thinking would consider things differently. But at the time, so much work has been put by my mom for me that I wanted to go to a four-year university.
Victor realized that attending community college may have been a better route for him, but he was determined to attend an elite four-year institution despite the financial barriers.
Every student in this group identified family support and expectations as an important factor in their decision to enroll at a four-year institution. Nearly half, 48.3% of the statements that were coded, identified family support/expectations as a reason why these undocuscholars directly attended a university. Martha, a 21-year-old Latina, for example, identified her family as providing crucial support:
I feel like if I didn't have the support of my family, I wouldn't have been, come here at all. It's very simple. If I didn't have their help, I wouldn't be here. So, they definitely made a lot of sacrifices for me and my college education… So I knew that I kind of had to step it up and knew that I didn't have any other choice, but to give it my all, do what it is that I really need to do and um graduate from college.
By recognizing their sacrifices for her education, she used it as a motivation to persist through college. Valeria, a 23-year-old Latina, similarly, described her path:
I'm the first one in my family to go to school. So I didn't know what we needed, what was required of us to go school…I didn't know money was going to be such an issue and even more when you are undocumented because you don't [End Page 353] get financial aid… My junior and my senior year I got really depressed because it just seemed like everything was going down the drain, but then I got a couple scholarships, and my parents told me just to go, and they would try to help me as much as they could my first year couple of years.
Valeria dealt with the harsh realization of what it meant to be undocumented in terms of her exclusion from financial aid. She admitted becoming depressed as her college plans were falling apart, but her family's support allowed her to enroll at a four-year institution. Family support includes emotional and financial support, and these multiple forms of familial support were central in Martha and Valeria's decision to enroll at a public university.
Interestingly, several students also pointed out that learning about the undocumented student support that was available at this public university played a major role in their decision to attend this college. For example, Chloe, a 19-year-old Black female student, explained how she chose this particular institution:
I think one of the reasons that solidified why I wanted to come to [this institution] was I attended the [Conference for the Advancement of Immigrant Youth (pseudonym)]…I remember when I was looking at all different colleges, you know I would get a certain vibe, but I wouldn't know how I would fit in as somebody who is undocumented because it's one thing for you to be attractive to the atmosphere, and it's a whole 'nother thing to know whether they can appeal to you[r] undocumented quote on quote needs. So I wanted to make sure that I would be welcomed on this campus, and I remember attending that conference. There were over a thousand people like myself and the moment I saw that, it just made me feel so much more comfortable, knowing that I would actually have a home. It wouldn't just be university, but would be some place that would become like my extended family.
For Chloe, feeling welcomed on campus and knowing that the university would meet her needs as an undocumented student were crucial factors in her college choice process. It is important to point out that the undocumented student support available at this public university was also an important factor for transfer students when they were in the process of transferring, but it was not enough of a compelling reason for them to directly attend this institution after graduating high school. Nevertheless, although undocumented college students prioritize financial concerns, it is still vital to recognize that institutional support can provide students with important opportunities to find resources, guidance, and social support regarding "how their legal status will present specific barriers at an institution and how to navigate through those barriers" (Huber & Malagon, 2007, p. 850). Such support can be very appealing to many undocumented, first-generation college students. Ultimately, multiple factors encouraged these participants to directly enroll at a public university. [End Page 354]
Strategies to fund a postsecondary education at a four-year institution.
Non-transfer students creatively utilized multiple strategies to pay the steep costs of a public university such as relying on scholarships and contributions from family and friends, commuting and/or living at home, and working excessively. Compared to the transfer students, these participants emphasized family contributions and scholarships more frequently. For instance, Martha stated:
I would apply for some scholarships. And then the other half was like my parents. So, my dad he used to own an ice cream truck, and so he sold it to help pay for my first year, and then my mom, she kind of helped pay for my second year. So she's like a seamstress… and so she would stay like overtime… to try to get like figure out how to pay for school.
This is not to suggest that the transfer students in this study did not have any family support. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that whereas the transfer student participants focused on the financial costs that led them to enroll at a community college, the participants who directly attended a public university reported relying on family contributions and scholarships. One potential explanation could be that non-transfer students may have come from slightly higher socioeconomic backgrounds and were thus able to receive more family contributions. Another potential explanation could be that because tuition at a community college is less compared to a four-year institution, the transfer students were able to pay their tuition just by working excessively while attending community college. In contrast, solely relying on one's earnings would not be enough for undocumented students attending a public university to pay all their college expenses. As Valeria pointed out:
I mean I would, got some scholarships, and my parents had to help me. So they were, so, a big source for me, but then when the fee comes, the $40,000 dollars, I had to take quarters off like winter or something… So I tutored like around here very rich people and made, I, lot of money like that…but I had to take a quarter off obviously because I couldn't afford the $40,000 in a couple of months.
Even with multiple sources, Valeria had to stop out for a few quarters to raise money. Nonetheless, family contributions eased the financial burden for these students. Many nontransfer participants also commuted to save on housing costs, but commuting was physically and mentally taxing for several students, and the burden of constantly finding ways to pay for their college expenses still remained. Although participants relied upon multiple sources of support, each quarter brought a new tuition bill, which made remaining in college difficult. [End Page 355]
Financial Affordances of the CA DREAM Act
The most important consequence of the CA DREAM Act was the much-needed financial support it provided to the participants, which consequently lessened their persistent concern and anguish regarding their ability to afford their education and remain in college. With the CA DREAM Act, the students in this study were relieved to know about the support available for them to continue their studies. For instance, Joshua, a 25-year-old Asian, noted:
So it really helped a lot knowing that I have financial aid. It kinda give[s] you that peace of mind knowing that you know, oh next quarter where am I gonna get this? Should I stop going to college? Should I stop going a quarter or two quarters and save up and just start working and save up money. So it kinda gave you, you know, that peace of mind…
Joshua spent a lot of time worrying about paying tuition each quarter. The cycle of worrying persists for undocumented students as they constantly have to figure out how to pay for one quarter after another. These concerns take a significant toll on students' mental health, and undocumented students have demonstrated higher levels of stress and anxiety (Gonzales, Suárez-Orozco, & Dedios-Sanguineti, 2013). Also, because of the financial support offered by the CA DREAM Act, Joshua did not have to consider dropping out of college. Unfortunately, without such legislation, many undocumented students pursuing an undergraduate degree are pushed out of college because of the financial burdens that they face.
Chloe also pointed out when asked about how access to financial aid affects her experiences attending a four-year institution:
I would say it was definitely a positive because without it, I wouldn't be where I am today…I feel like one of the only reasons that I'm able to accomplish a lot of the things is because they allowed me the gateway for me to attend this institution in the first place, without that I wouldn't be able to attend and afford the tuition that I pay now…I think it helped as far as me not having to worry whether I'd be attending the institution or not. Often times that's one of the things that hurts student retention most. It is when they have to worry not only their studies, but they have financial burdens too.
Chloe emphasizes the value of having access to financial aid which allowed her to attend this university in the first place. Financial aid has been demonstrated to promote college enrollment and attendance among minority students (St. John, 1991). However, undocumented students across the country are not given this access due to state and federal laws. In fact, Chloe alludes to the importance of expanding financial aid policy by stating how worrying about financial burdens and academics hurts undocumented student retention. Juggling multiple responsibilities can be a demanding task for any college [End Page 356] student, and the lack of financial support further exacerbates those challenges for undocumented students. By having financial aid to help lessen their financial burden and relieve their constant worrying, undocumented students can focus more on their studies and other responsibilities.
Another crucial point that needs to be problematized is exemplified in 23-year-old Latino, Carlos' response:
I have a single mother, and I live in a single parent household I guess, and my mom…works hard labor I guess…So because I depended on her and I wasn't working at that time, that was the only problem. So if I did not get financial aid, I wasn't gonna be able to go to a university. Because I did not have the, I wasn't an exceptional student. I wasn't one of the students that like oh besides all these obstacles you know, he has a 4.0.
With a large number of undocumented students competing for limited, merit-based scholarship funds, students such as Carlos who don't claim to be "exceptional student[s]" may have a harder time obtaining scholarships and finding alternative funding opportunities. Thus, state-funded financial support can possibly make an even greater impact on the lives of these students. For Carlos, financial aid was the most important factor that allowed him to attend college especially since he came from a low-income, single parent household. As he reiterated later in the interview, "…[the CA DREAM Act] gives me hope. It gives me the reason to actually go to college. And it gives me the opportunity to actually go to college." Students who tend to exit college early have been noted to be the students who are not typically labeled as "good student, high achiever, class president, Valedictorian" (Gonzales, 2016, p. 117), and with the limited opportunities available, these students are placed in circumstances in which they are pushed out of college. Thus, the ability to access financial aid can help counteract the trend of undocumented students like Carlos exiting college early.
Ultimately, every participant described how the CA DREAM Act provided crucial support that helped students pay for tuition and continue attending a four-year institution. For many, they would not be at this university if it had not been for the financial aid available to them. In essence, the financial aid ensured that these students did not have to constantly worry about finding different ways to raise funds to stay in college, and it also allowed them to think positively about finishing their undergraduate degree. For instance, Victor admitted, "Well, I mean financially it is always a struggle. The aid helps enormously. I mean that's why I'm able to finish." The hope and optimism generated by the participants is promising to note because these students want to complete their undergraduate degrees. The majority felt as if they were on track to graduate college since the largest barrier they faced was the financial burdens associated with college tuition. However, most [End Page 357] undocumented students in the country have been denied the opportunity to access financial aid and still face those persistent barriers. These findings demonstrate how a change in policy can affect students' persistence and outlook on their college trajectories as the opportunity to access financial aid alleviated some of their financial barriers.
Unremedied Financial Responsibilities
Although the CA DREAM Act expanded undocumented students' access to financial aid, this legislation still did not relieve other financial responsibilities of these college students such as living expenses and family responsibilities. As Chloe pointed out about the limitations of the CA DREAM Act:
Yet it wasn't enough to the point that all my needs were met and I knew that eventually I would have to take up a job and only recently because of DACA have I been able to do so. So yes, it was helpful but it didn't cover everything. I still needed to pick up a job.
Although financial aid helped students to pay their tuition, they still had to work to pay for other costs. Since the majority of participants in this study were able to work legally due to DACA, they were able to find jobs on campus or at a local restaurant and were guaranteed to earn at least minimum wage. In contrast, students who did not have DACA had more limited employment options and protections. For instance, they would have to seek out under-the-table or cash-only jobs which tend to be lower-paying (Frum, 2007). Hence, these particular students faced even greater challenges in finding ways to afford their financial responsibilities outside of college tuition. Overall, the most common expenses that participants identified include campus and living expenses, the cost of transportation, and family responsibilities.
Campus and living expenses often includes housing costs, food, and groceries. Rodrigo, a 21-year-old Latino, described his situation as:
I'm very limited in the things that I can do and cannot do. Um, I feel the lack of money gives me like a lack of options- like because I'm on a budget that means I have to live further away from campus and find the cheapest apartment possible I can in order for me to save money. Or me having to buy grocery food instead of ordering food like every time like a lot of my friends. Or like me having to eat less in order for me to save money.
Even with financial aid, he described how he cannot afford all the other expenses that come with being a college student. Because he is on a strict budget, he has to be careful in how he spends his money. Unfortunately, several students in this study, including Rodrigo, explained how they are often compelled to live unhealthy lifestyles such as skipping meals or are consuming cheaper food. A number of participants relied on food vouchers that the university provided to help support students who were experiencing [End Page 358] financial difficulties with access to free meals. Although the state passed legislation to widen access to financial aid, this university had to enact its own policies and services to better support undocumented college students.
For many students who could not afford housing costs, they also had to manage the cost of transportation while recognizing how commuting prevented them from having a "full college experience." Martha discussed her challenges as a commuter even after the CA DREAM Act:
Then like commuting because I can't afford to live on campus. It's also pretty difficult so just commuting for two hours, so four hours in total everyday just trying to go to school…I didn't think it was going to be that tiresome, but it is once you get back home.
Alejandra similarly suggested, "Even with financial aid, for a lot of undocumented students [living on campus] is unattainable cause of the price tag. Some sort of housing or housing program that's affordable for us or for those who commute um a transportation service." The CA DREAM Act provided limited financial support for expenses outside of tuition. As college students, many still could not afford to live on campus, which is why Alejandra suggested that universities should have an alternative housing program or some support for transportation costs.
Many students also identified family responsibilities as a critical aspect of their lives. While also being college students, many participants supported their families by paying some bills. For instance, 22-year-old Latina, Monica highlighted how she supports her family:
I would still help at home with the rent and food and until my mom recently… it was just really bad at her work. Cause she works in downtown, and it's just not a good job. So we decided she had to quit her job. So I went back home, and I just help with rent, cable, food…It's a lot of um financial responsibilities at home.
Monica ensured that her mother could live comfortably and did not work in poor working conditions. Victor also pointed out, "So I do have a responsibility at home to make sure that [my mother] is okay and to make sure that things are okay at home." Victor, living in a single-parent household, feels obligated to look after his mother and help with the household expenses. Despite their unremedied college financial hardships, many felt compelled to support their families whether their parents asked them to or not.
Also, when discussing financial responsibilities, non-transfer students in this study reported family responsibilities three times as more frequently than the transfer students. This potentially can be linked to a previous finding in which the non-transfer students discussed family support more often than the transfer students. Perhaps the non-transfer undocuscholars felt the [End Page 359] need to reciprocate the support their families provided them before the CA DREAM Act. For many, they would not have been able to directly attend a public university without their families' financial and emotional support. After the CA DREAM Act, students may have felt the need to return the favor such as by paying some bills. For instance, Rodrigo, a non-transfer student, explained, "I also try to help out my mom and my sister whenever they- whenever I can, but it's not like I have to. It's just like me wanting to help them out." Even if he does not have to support them, he wants to help them in any way possible. This was a nuanced finding that seemed to illustrate a potential link between family support and obligations.
Although the CA DREAM Act provided undocumented students with much-needed financial assistance, it still had significant limitations as many students still experienced financial hardships related to living and housing costs and family expenses.
Discussion and Implications
California is one of the few states that have passed legislation, namely the California DREAM Act, aimed at expanding financial aid access to undocumented students. Such a policy change impacted the lives of undocumented students in significant and meaningful ways. In fact, the findings overwhelmingly demonstrate that students reported various direct benefits of having access to financial aid, and these financial affordances greatly supported their ability to pursue an undergraduate degree. Thus, the findings included the financial obstacles that participants reported before the CA DREAM Act and the affordances they received afterwards. However, undocumented students in this study still identified countless unremedied financial responsibilities. Our findings also included some notable differences between transfer and non-transfer students' responses related to their pathways through college.
More specifically, our findings demonstrate how financial aid access is a key component in promoting equity within higher education for undocumented students. When describing their experiences before the CA DREAM Act, students in this study admitted that they did not realize what it meant to be undocumented until they applied to college and were faced with the reality that they were excluded from accessing financial aid opportunities. Gonzales (2011) characterized this initial period of realization and disillusionment as the discovery stage before students have to transform their lives and goals as they "learn to be illegal" (p. 603). For the transfer students, this meant foregoing their hopes of directly enrolling at a four-year university. Although some students attended community college while others pieced together funds from multiple sources to afford their university tuition, everyone remained anxious and worried about how they would continue to remain in college. Many were compelled to take quarters off, which is not unusual [End Page 360] for undocumented students. In fact, in a national study, 73.9% of undocumented students who stopped-out of college did so due to financial difficulties (Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015). Unfortunately, this can lead to the "revolving door syndrome" in which many students may enroll in college but few students actually remain in the long run (Diaz-Strong, Gomez, Luna-Duarte, & Meiners, 2011, p. 115).
However, with the passage of the CA DREAM Act, the students in this study were able to feel a sense of relief, both mentally and financially. Interestingly, eight of the nine transfer students in this study enrolled at California Public University in 2013, which was the same year that the CA DREAM Act went into effect. This may suggest that the availability of financial aid may have influenced participants' decisions to transfer from a community college and enroll at a public university. As many participants pointed out, the CA DREAM Act eased their financial burden and allowed them to pursue a degree at an elite public university. By accessing financial aid, these undocumented students were able to attend a public university while maintaining a positive outlook on their ability to complete their undergraduate education. Similar to Pérez Huber's (2015) findings in her study of DACA and the California DREAM Act, these policies afforded undocumented students with a sense of protection and relief that they can finally pursue their educational goals. Although AB540 had been in place for several years in California, in-state tuition was still too steep of a cost for many undocumented students, making higher education inaccessible and out-of-reach (Gonzales, 2010). This further confirms Perna's (2006) model in which the larger social, economic, and policy contexts can significantly shape the college choice process for students. In California, the combination of state policies that expanded in-state tuition and financial aid for undocumented students provided the much-needed financial supports that these students needed to enroll and remain in college.
Although this was a qualitative study, the findings support previous research which suggests that financial aid promotes college attendance and persistence particularly for minority students (Perna, 1998; St. John, 1991; St. John & Noell, 1989). Providing students with opportunities to receive additional aid increases their likelihood to complete their bachelor's degrees (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2016). This positive effect in enrollment and persistence has been noted to be the greatest among nonwhite applicants (Angrist et al., 2017). As this study demonstrated, expanding access to institutional and state aid is a critical way to support undocumented students' persistence through college since they are excluded from most forms of financial aid. The findings of this study also demonstrate the extent to which changes in financial aid policy can have direct and profound implications on the educational experiences as described by undergraduate students themselves, particularly those facing financial barriers. This warrants more qualitative research to provide [End Page 361] critical insight on how students perceive the effects of various financial aid policies in their own lives.
Yet simply having financial aid options available to undocumented students is not enough to ensure that they are actually receiving the funding needed to support their postsecondary education. As Bozick and colleagues (2015) noted, financial aid availability did not necessarily increase college enrollment among Mexican-born, non-citizen youth compared to those living in states that just offered in-state tuition. In fact, despite the availability of financial aid through the CA DREAM Act, nearly one-third of the overall CA DREAM Act grants and about half of the funds geared towards community college students were left unused in 2015 (Gordon, 2016). Furthermore, in a survey, the vast majority of undocumented student respondents currently enrolled in a California public institution reported being unaware about their Cal Grant offers (CSAC, 2016). Although undocumented students are able to access financial aid in California, this "access" can only go so far if students are left uninformed about their financial aid options in college.
As Perna (2006) proposed, it is important to consider the layers of habitus, school and community, and the higher education context in addition to the larger policy contexts. Undocumented students tend to be first-generation college students who typically lack critical social capital and college-going knowledge (Garcia & Tierney, 2011). Yet undocumented students also experience the fear and distress associated with disclosing their status to institutional agents (Hernandez et al., 2010; Muñoz, 2015). Even when undocumented students revealed their status to high school counselors, teachers, and higher education support staff, many experienced various forms of discrimination, institutional neglect, and microaggressions including a general lack of knowledge on the part of institutional agents who were not able to provide the assistance that the students sought (Huber & Malagon, 2007; Nienhusser, Vega, & Carquin, 2016). In fact, some undocumented students even reported experiences of being discouraged by staff members in pursuing college or even attempting to find financial resources and guidance (Contreras, 2009). Thus, school counselors and college personnel, who serve as gatekeepers to higher education for minority youth (e.g., Lee & Ekstrom, 1987), must take the initiative to become informed about various financial aid options and legislation that affect undocumented students and to provide them with the much-needed guidance they need to successfully enroll in and navigate through college. In order to enter and remain in the college pipeline, undocumented students face unique barriers in each of the four layers proposed by Perna (2006). Having state policies that expand financial aid for them is an important first step, but higher education personnel need to be trained in how to better bridge the access to those resources with undocumented students seeking out those forms of support. [End Page 362]
Additionally, as of the writing of this article, California is only one of six states that currently offers financial aid assistance to undocumented students (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2015), which warrants a further examination of the experiences of undocumented undergraduates in those other five states. Future studies should not only highlight the benefits of financial aid on undocumented students' ability to enroll and persist through college, but to also identify the challenges that these students face in learning about financial opportunities. Many states should advocate for changes in their financial aid policies to ensure that undocumented students have equal access to a higher education especially since the initial aim of Plyler vs. Doe was to prevent the creation of a permanent underclass of immigrant students in American society, and denying undocumented students, many of whom have grown up in the U.S., the opportunities needed to pursue a postsecondary education will inevitably create and sustain that underclass. This is especially important as many experts state that expanding access and investing in higher education "for all students who are prepared and desire to attend is essential to the nation's social progress and economic prosperity" (National Dialogue on Student Financial Aid, 2003, p. 4). Many undocumented students, including those interviewed in this study, have hopes and aspirations of pursuing careers and goals to give back to their communities, and enhancing their ability to obtain college degrees and pursue better-paying jobs allows them to be more productive members of American society (Gonzales, 2009). Access to any form of education should not be contingent upon status, particularly to these young people who are American in every way.
As these findings demonstrate, undocumented students benefit greatly from accessing various forms of financial aid, and these benefits were even more pronounced in the national context of DACA's implementation. While many of the students in this study were able to obtain work permits and secure jobs through DACA, which provided them with immense support in affording some of their unremedied financial responsibilities, they also held on to a positive outlook about completing their undergraduate degrees. Their future outlook was not dampened by the prospect of exclusion from employment opportunities due to DACA. Yet, DACA does not provide undocumented students access to most forms of financial aid, and many undocumented youth are not eligible for this program in the first place. With the recent termination of DACA and different lawsuits challenging that decision as well as bleak prospects for comprehensive immigration reform, states need to take the initiative to enact policies and legislation such as the California DREAM Act that would promote undocumented students' pathways through college. More recently, student-led coalitions in both Illinois and New York were finally successful in having their respective states [End Page 363] pass legislation (IL RISE Act and the New York State DREAM Act) granting undocumented students access to state financial aid. With current efforts to change financial aid policy in some states, this study informs the need to expand such policy to better support undocumented students as they try to pursue an undergraduate degree.
There were some key limitations to this study including a small sample size. Additionally, participants in this study may have been undocumented students who were already highly engaged on campus and were thus easier to reach and recruit. Due to those reasons, it is possible that the experiences of undocumented students who may not necessarily disclose their status publicly or choose to remain in the shadows was not accurately captured within this study. Similarly, DACAmented students may have been more likely to participate since they are also more likely to be out about their status due to the sense of protection afforded to them through DACA (Williams, 2016). Consequently, in the context of the CA DREAM Act, the specific and nuanced ways in which undocumented students without DACA navigate higher education in California and face varying challenges and benefits compared to DACAmented students is not fully captured in this study. Highlighting their experiences is particularly critical at a time when DACA's future will be determined by the Supreme Court and hundreds of DACAmented students are losing their status every day (Jawetz & Svajlenka, 2017). Finally, this study focused exclusively on the California DREAM Act. However, state climates regarding whether to support undocumented immigrants varies across the country. Although this study informs the need for states to adopt policies similar to the CA DREAM Act, there are key barriers in having such legislation actually pass in other states that may not be as immigrant-friendly as California has demonstrated to be in the past decade (Ramakrishnan & Colbern, 2015). States may require more explicit educational outcomes of undocumented college students as a result of the CA DREAM Act and detailed economic analyses to ensure that the expansion of financial aid policy is not a financial detriment to the state before even considering legislation similar to the CA DREAM Act.
Nonetheless, similar to the participants in this study, many undocumented students have hopes and aspirations to attend college and pursue their goals. These young people are part of American society and denying them access to resources to ensure their successful transition to and through college is denying them their chance to achieve their American Dream. Despite the fear and uncertainties that they face in their lives, they are often at the forefront of supporting their families and advocating for their communities. States and postsecondary institutions need to proactively support these young people whether that is by declaring themselves as sanctuary campuses or implementing undocu-friendly policies such as expanding financial aid especially at a [End Page 364] time in which the federal administration is focused on cracking down on undocumented immigrants.
Future directions for this research should include a long-term examination of how the CA DREAM Act has influenced undocumented students' postsecondary trajectories and college completion rates. Furthermore, the consequences of expanding financial aid policy to include undocumented students should also be explored within other states that have also enacted such legislation. Similarly, the experiences of undocumented youth should also be examined within states with restrictive higher education policies. Such research into how states and institutions are responding to undocumented students' needs is extremely critical due to the current polarizing sociopolitical context. Although state policies can affect undocumented students' lives in meaningful ways, with today's contentious political atmosphere and no current pathway to citizenship, many undocumented immigrants will continue to be restricted from accessing basic resources or participating more fully in American society (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2011), thus warranting a need for long-term, state and federal permanent solutions.
Syeda S. Raza, MEd, is currently a high school educator in the Chicagoland area. Her interests and research have focused on a variety of issues in education such as exploring how social justice-based, culturally relevant, and linguistically competent pedagogies can be implemented to support students of color. She has been involved in examining the experiences of immigrant-origin youth including undocumented students. More recently, she has become interested in focusing on teacher identity in the classroom.
Zyshia Williams received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Accounting and International Development Studies from UCLA. She is currently an accountant in San Francisco.
Dalal Katsiaficas, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology at the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She works closely with immigrant-origin youth to explore pressing issues regarding their development and engagement in schools, families and communities. Her current research focuses on exploring the social development of immigrant-origin youth in a variety of educational settings, with regards to the development of multiple identities and social and academic engagement.
Lydia Saravia has a PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Education. Her dissertation titled Soy Indígena: The Promise and Struggles of an Escuela Normal Bilingüe Intercultural in Guatemala analyzed the bilingual and intercultural curriculum of a predominantly indigenous teacher education site in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. Currently, she is a faculty member of DePaul University's Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse department. Her research focuses on Language Rights, Indigenous Rights, Transnationalism, Multilingual Speakers, and English Language Learners to name a few.