States' DREAM Acts Could Deter High School Dropouts

US News

An estimated 700,000 K-12 students, including 150,000 high schoolers, stand to benefit from President Obama's executive order last month to halt deportations of some undocumented youth. While the policy ensures young immigrants will not be deported for at least two years if they meet certain requirements--age, education, time in the United States, and clean criminal records--it stops short of the benefits proposed in the DREAM Act.

Originally introduced in 2001, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act provides a path to citizenship for undocumented students who entered the United States as children if they graduate from high school, earn a GED, or are accepted to or enrolled in college.

The most recent version of the DREAM Act does not give undocumented students access to educational benefits such as federal financial aid until they become U.S. citizens, and gives states the option to choose whether undocumented students meet the residency requirements for in-state college tuition. The bill was introduced in both the House and the Senate in May 2011, but neither side voted on the legislation.

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Twelve states have enacted their own versions of the DREAM Act and offer in-state tuition for undocumented students--often referred to as DREAMers--including Texas, New York, and California, which have the highest concentration of undocumented immigrants, according to a 2009 report by the Pew Hispanic Center. Utah, Washington, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Connecticut also allow DREAMers to receive in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. Undocumented students in Maryland also qualify for in-state tuition, but only at community colleges.

In Texas, undocumented students are also eligible for state-funded financial aid for college. Starting in 2013, undocumented students in California will also be eligible for state aid, and those considered low-income will qualify for community college fee waivers. A bill in New York proposing similar options failed to make it out of the state Senate last month.

Proponents of bills offering in-state tuition for DREAMers argue the move would help improve high school graduation rates by making college more attainable.

"The main purpose of offering resident tuition to undocumented students is to encourage them to stay in high school and be successful," James Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska, stated in written testimony to the state legislature's education committee in 2010. "Since many of these students drop out of high school when they realize that they will not be able to attend college, offering them the opportunity to attain a more affordable college education may also encourage more of them to perform well and graduate from high school."

Making college more affordable for DREAMers can provide needed motivation, but there isn't enough research to understand what impact, if any, these state laws have on the graduation rates of undocumented students, says Roberto Gonzalez, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration.

[Learn how Latino achievement helped increase national graduation rates.]

"It's really hard to get a hold of that data," Gonzalez says. "Schools are very, very protective about releasing information, or even tracking who in their system might be undocumented, just for fear that it gets in the wrong hands."

But including high school enrollment or completion as an eligibility requirement for protection under President Obama's recent policy could be the incentive some students need to graduate high school, Gonzalez adds.

"Jumping ahead, I could see the administration's new policy change (and the DREAM Act especially) as a motivation to finish school and to even go back and get a GED," he said via E-mail. "There are already growing efforts to get more students through the pipeline (and into GED programs) to ensure their eligibility."

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