E.g., 04/27/2017
E.g., 04/27/2017

Mapping the Patchwork of State ‘DREAM Acts’ and Postsecondary Education Policies for Unauthorized Immigrant Youth

Commentary
October 2015

Mapping the Patchwork of State ‘DREAM Acts’ and Postsecondary Education Policies for Unauthorized Immigrant Youth

Ruben Hernandez

Questions of how to treat unauthorized immigrants who were brought to the United States as children have been a focus of emotional policy debates at all levels of government for many years.

Often these debates focus on measures that seek to provide a pathway to citizenship for these youth, or measures to allow them to pursue postsecondary education at public institutions with access to supports such as in-state tuition rates, financial aid, and other grants or loans. On one side of these policy arguments are those who point to centuries-old legal and ethical principles which hold that children should not be punished for the actions of their parents; on the other are those who see such measures as sanctioning—even rewarding—illegal acts and imposing unwarranted burdens on the public purse.

Though the two types of measures have quite different aims, both are often referred to as “DREAM Acts” and the youth who support them as DREAMers. Since 2001, 17 states have enacted measures to allow qualified unauthorized immigrant youth to pay resident tuition rates at their postsecondary institutions. However, these DREAM Acts can differ significantly in their eligibility requirements for in-state tuition, as do state postsecondary education policies regarding the availability of financial aid and other supports.

The Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy first described important differences in these policies among a handful of states in a January 2015 report, Lessons from the Local Level: DACA’s Implementation and Impact on Education and Training Success. The report explores efforts being made to support youth potentially eligible for protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to complete diplomas and degrees that will help them lead stable and productive lives. Created by President Obama in 2012, DACA provides protection from deportation and work authorization for unauthorized youth who have lived in the United States for many years and meet certain other requirements. (For more on the DACA population at U.S., state, and top county levels, check out our very useful data tool.)

This expanded chart provides information on postsecondary policies related to enrollment, in-state tuition, financial aid, and other supports for the top 15 states of residence for DACA youth. It shows, for example, states coming down on opposite sides of the in-state tuition debate, or adopting seemingly small eligibility distinctions that have big impacts—like disqualifying youth who earned a high school equivalency diploma, or who don’t enroll in college soon after completing high school. The differences evident in state approaches and requirements form an unsettling policy patchwork—one where the accident of one’s state of residence could not only greatly influence these youth’s chances of attaining a two- or four-year college degree, but also their ability to earn permanent legal status should future legislation make college attainment a requirement.