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The Transition to College of English Learner and Undocumented Immigrant Students: Resource and Policy Implications

by Gloria M. Rodriguez & Lisceth Cruz - 2009

Background/Context: The analysis contained in this article was commissioned by the Social Science Research Council’s Transitions to College project. Although the historical context and contemporary issues associated with English learners (ELs) and undocumented immigrant students are in many ways distinct, the project team strongly believed that the college transition issues affecting these populations were increasingly salient in light of their rapid and continued growth throughout the United States.

Purpose/Objective/Research Questions/Focus of Study: The research questions guiding this analysis are: (1) What do we know and what do we need to know about the transition to college of EL and undocumented immigrant students? and (2) What are the resource and policy implications associated with the transition to college of these students? The chief purpose of this analysis is to synthesize the current research and thinking about the transitions to college of EL and undocumented immigrant students and to use the findings to develop a research agenda focused on emergent critical issues. The intent is to educate a research audience that is largely unfamiliar with the experiences of these unique populations and to inform future research directions.

Research Design: The analysis is situated within the broader context of immigrant educational attainment and integration in the United States. The two student populations are distinguished to delineate the particular college transition experiences of ELs versus undocumented students, while recognizing the overlaps that do exist. Thus, for each student population, the analysis synthesizes current literature and provides discussions of (a) student demographics for states and the United States, (b) student-level issues and factors, (c) K–12 issues and factors, (d) student agency, (e) postsecondary issues and factors, and (f) summary of critical challenges, barriers, and accomplishments relative to the college transition. The final element is a recommended research agenda developed from the issues revealed in this analysis.

Findings/Results: There is continued growth in the presence of EL and undocumented students, and this growth affects states with longstanding histories of immigrant presence, as well as states that have only recently had notable increases in these populations. Important to understanding the needs and potential of these two groups is that not all EL and undocumented students are new immigrants. Rather, many have only experienced education in the United States, having been born here or having arrived at a very young age with their families. From this analysis, it appears that English proficiency is as much a gatekeeping factor as it is a facilitative factor for EL and undocumented students in their successful college transitions. Unfortunately, because of the impact of poverty on these populations, the financial constraints of transitioning to college further compound the challenges already faced with regard to acquiring English and advanced subject matter proficiency. Two additional findings help to frame the college transition challenges of both EL and undocumented student populations: (1) There is a chasm between research-based best practices and the available human and material resources allocated in schools and colleges to support this objective, and (2) the role of the community college system is salient as a potential facilitative context, but one that is currently overburdened with multiple demands and shrinking resources.

Conclusions/Recommendations:The article presents an eight-point research agenda that addresses the challenges surfaced in the analysis. The points cover K–12 education, evaluations of the impact of legislation and programs, and postsecondary education, with the aim of improving the overall responsiveness of our educational institutions to the needs and strengths of our EL and undocumented student populations.

The United States has had a significant increase in its immigrant student population over the past two decades. The growing presence of both new immigrants and immigrant families with foreign- and U.S.-born children is a particularly significant occurrence for pre-K–12 and postsecondary education practitioners because they may not be adequately prepared to facilitate the academic success of their immigrant students. From a policy perspective, the concern for increased access to higher education for low-income students and students of color must extend to encompass the unique needs and strengths of immigrant students if policy is to serve as a lever to diversify our educational and social institutions. In recognition of this dual imperative of practice and policy, this article focuses on the transition to college of English learner (EL)1 and undocumented immigrant students in the United States.

For EL and undocumented immigrant students, education represents a pathway to improved social, political, and economic conditions. This route to “a better life” involves more than just the academic transition from pre-K–12 schooling to college, however. For immigrant students (and their families), the transition is multifaceted, involving the physical transition from one country to another, the cultural transition from one social context to another, and, because of the family responsibilities taken on by most of them, the seemingly recursive transition from adolescence to adulthood. This parentification of minors (Falicov, 1998) has held youth largely responsible for their formal education2 because their parents are unable to communicate with the schools and thus rely on their children as intermediaries in this and other social systems. Understanding the complexity of the students’ daily lives and their ongoing negotiation of culture and identity can help us map out the necessary responses from our educational institutions. Therefore, to the degree possible, this analysis relies on literature that provides an understanding of both the academic trajectories and broader challenges of EL and undocumented immigrant students. Part of this context is the increasingly anti-immigrant sentiment that has reemerged in recent social policy discussions about the future of the United States. Yet, as repeatedly indicated in the educational research literature, our nation’s future will remain inextricably linked to the future success of our immigrant populations.

As this article is being completed, U.S. policy makers and their constituents are involved in often heated debates over immigration in the United States. A recurring theme is the impact of immigrant populations on American social institutions, with public education as one of the largest systems affected. Some Americans draw a distinction regarding their specific concern over “illegal immigration.” In general, however, the public dialogue on immigration remains sorely lacking in terms of what we know and need to know to more fully understand the impact of immigration on this country. Immigration scholars and immigrant rights advocates have for years been dedicated to educating the public about the diverse historical, social, political, and economic circumstances and contributions of immigrants in the United States. Despite their efforts and those of bilingual education scholars, in the public educational system, there is a shockingly persistent ignorance about the academic strengths and challenges of immigrant student populations.

Therefore, the questions guiding the analysis presented here are the following: First, what do we know and need to know about the transition to college of EL and undocumented immigrant students? Second, what are the resource and policy implications associated with the transition to college of these students? Engaging these two questions enables us to tap into a wider research agenda on access to higher education that will inform our ability to ensure that deserving and talented students accomplish their educational goals.



The educational attainment of immigrants is a line of inquiry that has yielded important findings within which our interest in EL and undocumented immigrant students can be situated. It is instructive to consider that the educational pursuits of immigrant students in the United States are shaped by class, social networks, and economic status. In addition, important generational differences have been identified by an expanding literature on educational and workforce participation among immigrant families (Louie, 2001; Padilla, Dalton Radey, Hummer, & Kim, 2006; Portes, 1996; Portes & Hao, 2002; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Suárez-Orozco & Páez, 2002; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995; Zhou & Xiong, 2005). Considerable attention, for example, has been focused on second-generation immigrants, who tend to fare better educationally than their native-born counterparts.

The story of immigrants is complex. For example, A. Portes and Rumbaut (2001) pointed out that Latino and Asian immigrants’ academic performance was affected by whether they attended inner-city schools and by the length of time spent in U.S. public schools. In their analysis, these factors had a diminishing impact on the performance “advantage” of these students. In addition, Rumbaut (2006) and Tseng (2006) found that certain schooling-related factors mediate the educational attainment and choices among children of immigrants, with their educational expectations and English proficiency having significantly affected these outcomes.

Segmented assimilation theory in particular has offered an important explanation regarding immigrants’ social and economic integration into the United States, one that has likewise influenced our understanding of the educational prospects of immigrants (Portes, Fernández-Kelly, & Haller, 2005). Through a variety of empirical studies, researchers have found that family ties, community networks, and receiving context (e.g., whether immigrants face a welcoming environment) are among the strongest predictive factors for determining the likely levels of educational, economic, and social attainment of immigrants in the United States. These factors have emerged as significant in studies focusing on both Latino and Asian immigrant populations (and particular subgroups, including Mexican, Cuban, Chinese, and Korean immigrants). Although researchers acknowledge that segmented assimilation theory does not explain all the complexity of immigrants’ experiences as they attempt to integrate into American society, the studies have enabled us to move beyond antiquated models that treated all immigrants as a single homogeneous group.

In addition, other analyses of immigrant students’ experiences in education have provided a further contextualization of the process of accessing, persisting in, and completing higher education (Gray, Rolph, & Melamid, 1996; Louie, 2001; Sy, 2006). Some of the critical lessons learned from these studies concern the role of social networks within and beyond school settings in facilitating (or hindering) various elements of the educational attainment process. It is important to note that although A. Portes and Rumbaut (2001) found social networks to be positively associated with certain Latino and Asian origin immigrants’ ability to access both educational and employment opportunities, the situation is likely to be more complex. Sanders, Nee, and Sernau (2002), conversely, found that ethnic social networks are perceived by some immigrants to be less advantageous a resource in accessing employment opportunities that provide upward mobility. Nevertheless, even within these groups, Sanders et al. found that social networks are critical to the educational and employment opportunities that create more avenues for mobility among immigrant groups.

For undocumented students, it is these support networks that provide the necessary tools with which they can navigate institutions of higher learning (Abrego, 2008; Diaz-Strong & Meiners, 2007). Because of differences in recognized forms of social and cultural capital, students are unable to fully understand the complexities of universities and how they need to negotiate their identities as students and young adults (Yosso, 2006). Support groups have thus been a means through which institutional knowledge is acquired.

There is also a growing strand of the educational attainment literature on the college transition experiences of immigrant students, again with particular attention focused on the second generation (U.S.-born children of immigrant parents). For example, Rumbaut (2006) examined the factors affecting the educational attainment of second-generation youth using the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS) data, with additional consideration of two “turning point” factors—incarceration and early pregnancy—thought to potentially disrupt the trajectory from high school to college among the respondents. Important in the findings of Rumbaut’s study was that time spent on homework, early educational ambitions and expectations, and English proficiency were all mediating factors in educational attainment, incarceration, and pregnancy. Such findings provide meaningful insights for considering the schooling conditions and educational paths of ELs and undocumented immigrant youths, whose experiences are as much shaped by their immigrant generational status as by the ways in which they are interacting with social institutions such as schools.

Perhaps less well understood is the role of personal and social identity in shaping the academic journeys of immigrant students. Although we are aware, through the work of Brittain (2002), González, Moll, and Amanti, (2005), Portes (1999), and Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco (1995), that transnational identity and ways of living emerge from immigrants’ negotiation of daily life within the United States, it does not appear that our educational institutions have incorporated this awareness into their responses to immigrant student needs. We have yet to see reflected in our educational institutions, for example, an understanding of the role of race, racial identity, and institutionalized racism in shaping the academic trajectories of immigrant students. Beyond the ongoing comparisons of the educational attainment of foreign-born versus U.S.-born minority youth, scholars engaged in illuminating the unacknowledged resourcefulness of immigrant and minority students in the pursuit of their educational goals are also implicitly revealing the inability of our schools and colleges to fully embrace racial and linguistic diversity as a source of academic strength (Nieto, 2000; Rendón, 2002; Rodriguez, 2007; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995; Valencia & Solórzano, 1997; Yosso, 2005; Yosso, 2006).


Recent reports on the demographics of the school population in the United States indicate a large presence of EL students. For the nation as a whole, Kindler (2002) reported that in 1999–2000, EL students made up 9.3% of the total public school enrollments based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics. This percentage represents a total of 4.4 million students nationwide, or the equivalent of four school districts the size of the entire New York City Public Schools system. At the secondary level, encompassing Grades 7–12, EL students constitute 5.4% of the total enrollment, representing slightly fewer than 1.1 million students. Despite the larger proportion of the pre-K to Grade 6 population, researchers have noted that the educational circumstances of secondary EL students are worthy of careful attention, given that these students are often in a position of both learning English and seeking to gain access to academic content that schools are not often prepared to deliver in languages other than English (August & Hakuta, 1997; Gándara, Maxwell-Jolly, & Driscoll, 2005; García, 2001; Merino, 1999; Ruiz-de-Velasco & Fix, 2000; Adger & Peyton, 1999).

In total, 400 languages are spoken among the nation’s EL students (Kindler, 2002). The majority of the EL population in the United States speaks Spanish (76.6%). In California, the state with the greatest representation of EL students, 85% of this group speaks Spanish (California Department of Education, 2006). The next largest language groups in the United States include Vietnamese (2.3%), Hmong (2.2%), Haitian Creole (1.1%), Cantonese (1.0%), and Korean (1.0%).

ELs are concentrated in a few states, with growth in the population occurring in several states that did not have an EL presence until very recently. Consistently at the top of the list of concentrations of this population are California, Texas, Florida, New York, Arizona, and Illinois. California has by far the greatest proportion of the total U.S. EL population: slightly fewer than 1.5 million students, or 33.5% of the total. Texas ELs represent 12.6% of the total, and Florida and New York ELs each constitute slightly more than 5% of the total national EL population.

The list of states with the largest statewide proportions of EL students is again topped by California—at 25%—according to a survey of states for 1999–2000 (Kindler, 2002). According to the California Department of Education (2006), 31.2% of these students, or nearly half a million, are at the secondary level (Grades 7–12). Other states with the most sizeable percentages of EL students are New Mexico (23.6%), Alaska (14.8%), Arizona (14.7%), Texas (13.9%), and Nevada (12.4%) (Kindler, 2002). In addition, several states in the South and Midwest have experienced a large increase in their EL populations between 1997–1998 and 1999–2000: South Carolina, with an 82% increase; Minnesota, with a 67% increase; and Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, and North Carolina, each showing increases of at least 40% (Kindler, 2002).

Given these data, we know that the EL population continues to grow in states with a longstanding history of immigrant community presence, and there is also growth beyond the southwestern and northeastern states. Thus, we need to find out how states in the South and Midwest are responding to their change in student demographics, given their relative inexperience with attending to the instructional needs of EL students. Although states with a longer history of significant numbers of EL students might provide important examples of how to respond to their specialized needs, this analysis reveals that even states with more experience face considerable difficulty in serving their EL populations (Gándara, Rumberger, Maxwell-Jolly, & Callahan, 2003; Parrish, Perez, Merickel, & Linquanti, 2006).

A growing percentage of ELs are actually not immigrants. Admittedly, in the effort to organize this article using areas of commonality between EL and undocumented students, the connection with immigration seems obvious and logical; however, it is important to note that although being an EL is still largely associated with being an immigrant student in our public school system, there are large numbers of students who are either U.S. born or who have been here for most of their lives but are not considered English language proficient (Gershberg et al., 2004). These students, who are referred to as “long-term ELs,” are often orally proficient in English but are not proficient enough in the academic writing and reading of English to support school achievement. We must certainly remain concerned about the particular circumstances of new immigrants who are ELs, but the growing presence of long-term ELs points to a pattern within our educational system that will persist if institutions continue to lack the capacity to meet the needs of these students.



The academic transition from K–12 schooling to college for English learner students involves the transition from knowing languages other than English to being bilingual (or multilingual). This process often begins before high school—the commonly assumed starting point of the transition to college—and can last well into the early college years. As has been well established in the literature on second language acquisition, bilingual education scholars have noted that the linguistic transition alone can take between 3–7 (August & Hakuta, 1997; García & Wiese, 2002). The length of time that it might take a student is dependent in part on the literacy levels in his or her native language, but also on the extent to which his or her academic progress in course content beyond English is supported in the native language (Faltis & Wolfe, 1999). Despite the well-supported claim that becoming fluent in English is a transition that could happen concurrently with the overall academic transition to college, it appears that English language acquisition is instead treated as a gatekeeping process for access to college preparatory content.


An analysis of ELs’ prospects for postsecondary study requires attention to the nuanced differences within this group of students. For example, it is significant to consider the difference between a secondary EL student who is a new arrival to the United States and a student who has attended U.S. schools for much of her or his life without a reclassification3 of language proficiency status (Gershberg et al., 2004). For example, the reclassification of students from limited English proficient status to fully English proficient status implies that the students are capable of successfully participating in English-dominant classroom environments. However, it also may mean that reclassified students with some remaining (though relatively minor) English language support needs are no longer eligible for any such support whatsoever. The challenges that exist for ELs in their transition to postsecondary education thus do not begin in the ninth grade—or even middle school, for that matter. Indeed, the transition into the status of English proficient is an important parallel process to the broader transition that all students—proficient in English or not—must make to access the knowledge and skills required for success in college. The difficulty in the language proficiency transition is that it is so dependent on what happened in terms of native and/or second language development long before students reach middle or high school age. That is, second language acquisition specialists continue to argue for the maintenance and development of the primary language as a facilitative process for second language acquisition (August & Hakuta, 1997; Faltis & Wolfe, 1999). However, this view presupposes ideal learning and social conditions in which supportive structures and qualified educators are present to ease the transition to English proficiency. Moreover, even under such ideal circumstances, the process would take more time than is permitted by annual high-stakes testing requirements (García & Wiese, 2002). Even more infrequently discussed is the fact that learning conditions are not ideal for most ELs (Higgs, 2005; Rumberger & Gándara, 2004), and the recent focus on test-driven English proficiency as the primary means of accountability has created additional challenges for these students (Gándara et al., 2003; Linquanti, 2001; Olsen & Jaramillo, 1999)

Unfortunately, the no-win situation that the educational system seems to create for EL students within the current accountability environment is either a continued legacy of paying them little to no attention, or a future of directing only negative attention to their presence. In fact, the advice from the bilingual education scholarly community in decades past was to push for the inclusion of ELs in state and local assessments to ensure that their learning needs were monitored regularly and addressed consistently (August & Hakuta, 1997; García & Wiese, 2002). However, rather than view the language acquisition process as moving toward a “value-added” experience, ELs now face the dual stigma of not being proficient in English, which translates into their poor performance on high-stakes measures of academic achievement, and “driving down” their school community’s test scores. Thus, for these students, the pressure to perform appears to be considerable and within a context of very little support for their success either in becoming English proficient or in navigating the K–12 system in preparation for higher education.

One study by the Urban Institute (Ruiz-de-Velasco & Fix, 2000) was entitled “Overlooked and Underserved: Immigrant Students in U.S. Secondary Schools,” which captures well the general circumstances that immigrants face in their attempts to progress through high school. The authors discuss the particular challenges of immigrants who are in the process of acquiring proficiency in English while in secondary schools. Part of the challenge noted by these and other researchers is that there is a paucity of work that specifically addresses the educational experiences and policy challenges of secondary ELs compared with those in the primary grades (Faltis & Hudelson, 1998; Faltis & Wolfe, 1999; Ruiz-de-Velasco & Fix, 2000).

It appears that the schooling conditions for ELs who are fairly recent immigrants (and usually also from low-income backgrounds) are similar to, but often more acute than, those faced by other low-income students and students of color. Among these limiting conditions are classes taught by teachers who are not fully prepared to facilitate language development or integration into the school community; a lack of courses (for example, in math and science) that incorporate support for EL students; and the within-school segregation of ELs from their English-dominant peers, which can prevent a sense of belonging and full inclusion as learners. Certainly, this is the case with respect to many of the schools in California, a state with a large percentage of ELs among its total student population and with the highest concentrations among their high-poverty city neighborhoods and rural communities (Gándara et al., 2003; Ruiz-de-Velasco & Fix, 2000).

The situation of long-term ELs is an important example of the reality that so-called language barriers are not solely the problem of the students. Rather, there are significant processes within schools and professional judgments and actions that are critical to the successful mastery of English by ELs, about which much is known by researchers. Nevertheless, there continues to be a chasm between what is recommended as “best practices” and what is supported either with policy or material and human resources (Gándara et al., 2005; García & Wiese, 2002; Olsen & Jaramillo, 1999; Rodriguez, 2004; Rumberger & Gándara, 2004). What is most pertinent about this situation is the lack of consistency across state and local school systems in supporting EL students’ reclassification as English proficient, which precludes their progress in accessing college preparatory curricular and instructional resources. As long as a student cannot be reclassified—because of delays caused by inefficient assessment systems, inappropriate assessment instruments, lack of school capacity for supporting EL reclassification, or other factors—there exists a considerable obstacle in his or her transition to higher education. We can continue to generally characterize the long-term EL problem as an unfortunate circumstance of the students’ inability to perform well on assessments of their language proficiency. However, the growth of the long-term EL population is likewise a reflection of our educational system’s insufficient ability to meet the needs of these students by deploying appropriate human and material resources, including the requisite language and instructional skills among teachers (Gándara et al., 2005).

Indeed, although it is undeniable that proficiency in English is critical to students’ access to the curriculum, it is a limited perspective to think that students are not capable of acquiring subject matter skills and knowledge, for example, in their native language in an effort to bridge that divide between the designation as an EL and preparation for high school graduation and postsecondary education (Callahan, 2005; Faltis & Wolfe, 1999). As Gándara et al. (2005), Gonzales and Rodriguez (2007), Merino (1999), Olsen and Jaramillo (1999), Padilla and Gonzales (2001), and others continue to argue, the professional development gap that exists for most teachers who serve increasing numbers of ELs, often at varying levels of proficiency, requires serious attention.


Rather ironically for English learners, it appears that the educational system’s overemphasis on language acquisition defined only as English proficiency (García, Kleifgen, & Falchi, 2008) undermines their preparation for college. Although it was a key resource for the students in Rangel’s (2001) study of undocumented immigrant students’ transition to college, the opportunity to learn English alone was not sufficient to guarantee access to postsecondary study. For example, both Rangel (2001) and Callahan (2005) identified the lack of access to college preparatory courses as a key obstacle to EL students’ ability to prepare for study beyond high school.

One feature of public schools that is particularly associated with the underpreparation of EL students for college is academic tracking and the resulting within-school segregation of ELs (Conger, 2005; Schneider, Martinez, & Owens, 2006). For secondary ELs, the track placement decision carries implications not only for access to supports for English language acquisition but also for access to college-required academic coursework. For example, one study shows that the track placement of secondary ELs appears to be a more influential factor in their ability to prepare for postsecondary study than actual English proficiency (Callahan, 2005). This finding should not be misconstrued to mean that support for English language development is unimportant. On the contrary, Padilla and Gonzales (2001) found that instructional support for language development made a significant positive difference in the achievement of EL students at the secondary level. Of course, it is important to note that although our impression of the key challenge for these students centers on acquiring proficiency in English, in fact, English proficiency alone—particularly determined by certain limited standardized assessments—will not guarantee a successful transition into higher education. As indicated by Rumberger and Gándara (2004) in their analysis of the learning conditions for K–12 EL students in California, the school system is not as responsive as it needs to be to foster access to college preparatory curriculum and learning opportunities. Thus, the pathway to college for EL students is diverted by the limited capacity and resultant sorting processes of schools.

It is also helpful to contemplate briefly the longstanding institutional barriers that exist for many ELs in U.S. secondary schools. A huge and persistent concern is with the differential dropout rates among student populations that overlap with the EL student population. For example, as indicated by the demographics of EL students, the majority of this group is Latino, and many are recent immigrants to the United States. The high Latino dropout rate, including the presence of foreign-born students whose early education may not have been in the United States, has been discussed extensively in the literature (Fry, 2003; Rumberger & Lim, 2008; Rumberger & Rodriguez, 2002). When dropout data are disaggregated among Latino groups and between U.S.-born and foreign-born Latino students, it appears that some of the high dropout rate might be explained by the presence of foreign-born Latinos who may not have been as well educated in their early years as their U.S.-born counterparts. Regardless of this consideration, however, it appears that Latinos still experience double the dropout rate as White students, a difference that has persisted for decades (Rumberger & Rodriguez). Recent research (Orfield & Kornhaber, 2001) provides still further evidence that with ever-increasing attention to high-stakes accountability requirements that include high school exit exams for graduation, we might begin to see increases in disengagement with school among ELs, and eventually, higher dropout rates (Natriello & Pallas, 2001; McNeil & Valenzuela, 2001).


Although the literature on secondary ELs is sparse, we can nevertheless draw some insights from the recent studies examining the experiences of immigrant students. One important lesson from them is that social networks play a crucial role in facilitating students’ adjustment to their new communities and schools. Secondary ELs who are recent arrivals in the United States rely quite heavily on the social networks that exist in their home communities to navigate the school context (Brittain, 2002; Gibson, Gándara, & Kohama, 2004; Kim & Schneider, 2005, Valenzuela, 1999).

As noted by González et al. (2005) and Yosso (2005, 2006), ELs, low-income students, and immigrant students are often quite skilled at negotiating sophisticated systems on behalf of their families. These researchers explain that the students have skills that enable them to thrive in their rather complicated lives, as well as a work ethic and responsibilities that have been passed down from parents and other caregivers (Glick & White, 2004; Hardway & Fuligni, 2006). They further argued that schools, rather than building on these skills and community resources to support the educational achievement of the students, often construe academic success so narrowly that they diminish the importance of the skills and resources that students bring to the classroom (González et al., 2005; Nieto, 2000; Valencia and Solórzano, 1997; Valenzuela, 1999). This is an important insight to consider relative to EL students, given that they may also face largely “subtractive” processes in their quest to acquire proficiency in English (as theorized by Valenzuela). The processes may include academic tracking, lack of exposure to advanced learning in particular subjects, and limited interactions with adults at the school who might provide information and support to facilitate their broader integration into school and community life (Ruiz-de-Velasco & Fix, 2000). Nevertheless, it is crucial to this analysis not to relegate ELs and immigrant students to a position of perpetual victim simply because schools may not recognize or assess well the skills and forms of agency and self-reliance the students must deploy to support their own educational goals.


As noted in a quite comprehensive study on immigrants and higher education produced by RAND researchers Gray et al. (1996), data on the presence of EL students are not readily available. This means that we must rely on data that provide much broader English ability and educational attainment figures to get a sense of their presence in higher education. For example, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center (2009) based on the Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey, of the foreign-born population age 18 and older, 53.8% were reported to speak English less than very well, compared with individuals age 18 or younger, 34.3% of whom speak English less than very well. In the same report, consideration of Mexican foreign-born individuals age 25 or older reveals that 10.3% reported having completed some college, and 3.6% were college graduates. All survey respondents were foreign born, and they were not identified by immigration status, nor were they classified according to their proficiency in English. Still, despite this limitation of the survey, the general sense is that with such a large representation of Mexican immigrants in the sample, it is reasonable to consider that they are generally encountering challenges in acquiring English language skills and in obtaining access to higher education. An added complication to a comprehensive analysis of undocumented immigrant students is that postsecondary institutions are not likely to systematically collect data on this population, and even if they did, they are not likely to publish the information or make it otherwise available to researchers via public media (Gray et al.).

Recent research on the community college experiences of immigrant students, which included groups of English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students, indicates that although students may transition into postsecondary institutions, they still face difficulty in meeting the writing and other demands of their coursework (Bloom & Sommo, 2005; Blumenthal, 2002; California Tomorrow, 2005; Scrivener et al., 2008). There are relatively few resources or services available to support students who are still developing their skills in English. At the community colleges, developmental or “remedial” courses for ESL students are often structured to provide access to English language acquisition in order to support traditional academic language skills. Although such coursework is of great benefit, there are still considerable leaps that must be made by EL students who are using these opportunities to support their transition into postsecondary studies (Blumenthal, 2002).

When academic support services are available for ELs at the postsecondary level, new challenges appear. For example, although it is possible for a student at a community college to proceed with course taking that includes instruction in English language acquisition, such courses are seldom taken for credit, much less transferable for credit at a 4-year institution. In addition, the course content may be geared more toward the needs of “adult education” ESL students whose primary needs are English acquisition for entry-level employment and basic family life, versus preparation for transfer to a 4-year institution (Blumenthal, 2002). Thus, the situation for EL students can involve a cycle of coursework that requires a time investment for which there is no clear payoff in terms of credit accumulation toward either a degree or transfer to a more advanced course of study (Bloom & Sommo, 2005). This is problematic because the gatekeeping practices that students encountered in their precollege schooling experiences can be continued well after they leave high school (or earn a GED). Such a cycle can be discouraging and lead to students’ attrition from the higher education pathway altogether (Blumenthal, 2002; Rendón, 2002).

Another important concern is that the majority of the current EL population often must choose between pursuing higher education and contributing to the economic well-being of their families (Rangel, 2001). Although other low-income students must also make this choice, the added vulnerability of immigrant families perhaps makes it even more daunting for EL students, particularly if they continue to face obstacles to their academic development and success.

New research conducted by MDRC (Bloom & Sommo, 2005; Scrivener et al., 2008) indicates that the use of small learning communities at the community college level appears to be a promising initiative for helping students escape a cycle of noncredit coursework that does little to ensure adequate progress in their English language acquisition. The organization is doing its research at nine California community college campuses, and it will likely yield important insights relative to immigrant students’ experiences as they transition into higher education. In turn, it should inform our understanding of what happens (and does not happen) for EL students at this stage of their academic careers.


Returning to the questions guiding this analysis, it is clear that the ability of ELs to successfully prepare for their transition to college is dependent on the educational system’s capacity to support its linguistic and academic transitions concurrently. Still, generally speaking, even those states with rather large populations of EL students appear to be hard-pressed to offer the full spectrum of services needed to prepare this group for a transition to higher education. In some cases, we know that the successful linguistic and academic transitions hinge on the schools’ capacity to appropriately assess students as they enter the system and to monitor their progress. In other cases, it is a question of whether school personnel (including teachers, counselors, and principals) are prepared professionally to support the students’ development of English proficiency, bilingualism/multilingualism, and college preparation. Ultimately, college readiness for EL students depends on the resources of schools—financial and human—that are available to promote not only English language development but also access to and mastery of course content. Tragically, EL students in most U.S. public secondary schools face greater prohibitive than facilitative conditions and processes in their pursuit of higher education. Nevertheless, many educators persist in seeking support for the research-based practices that benefit EL secondary students, even in situations in which the external policy context (e.g., with the emergence of high-stakes accountability) creates barriers to their success.

EL students are not, however, simply to be thought of as victims of an unresponsive educational system. Instead, it is helpful to keep in mind that they have the ability to acquire skills and strategies that promote their sense of agency in pursuing their educational goals. The literature, although certainly providing confirming evidence of schools as unrelentingly bureaucratic and racially and linguistically biased organizations, also documents the sophistication of EL students (and their families) in navigating the school system as just one of many dimensions of American society they confront. Although such linguistic, navigational, and negotiation skills (Yosso, 2005) may go unrecognized as useful to the college preparation/transition process by many educators, the EL students’ development of such abilities certainly seems to contribute to the likelihood that they will persist in secondary school and college (Kim & Schneider, 2005; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001).

Perhaps the biggest questions that remain for deepening our understanding of the EL students’ transition to college relate to the factors that continue to prevent our educational institutions from being more fully responsive to the needs of these students. It does not appear that secondary schools do not know what needs to be done to respond to the college preparation needs of EL students. Rather, it appears that researchers, educators, and policy makers have yet to fully confront the types of racial, linguistic, and other institutional biases that exist within the inner workings of schools, preventing such a response (Rodriguez, 2007; Valencia & Solórzano, 1997; Valenzuela, 1999; Yosso, 2006). We might also explore the ways that institutions beyond public schools can contribute to efforts aimed at preparing secondary students for college. Although evaluations of precollege “educational pipeline” programs are likely available, the means to incorporate what is learned from them into the core work of schools remains elusive (Phillips, 1991; Rendón, 2002). Finally, it is necessary to find a way to move the concerns for ELs to the center of our thinking instead of treating their educational needs as peripheral to the essence of public schools.

In the section that follows, the analysis turns to the particular concerns for undocumented immigrant students, although there is considerable overlap with the concerns already presented for EL students. Still, as is the case with EL students (immigrant and nonimmigrant), the circumstances of undocumented immigrants also have nuances that add to their vulnerability beyond access to both language development and academic content.


Few studies have been undertaken to consider the specific issue of the transition to college of undocumented immigrant students, but this analysis makes use of the contributions made by the investigations completed thus far. Because of the United States’ legal commitment, resulting from Plyler v. Doe, to provide access to public schooling regardless of a student’s immigration status, it is difficult to know with certainty the magnitude of the demand for educational access for undocumented immigrants at the postsecondary level. However, even conservative estimates indicate that at least 65,000 undocumented immigrant students graduate annually from U.S. public high schools, about 37,000 of whom are Latino (Drachman, 2008; Passel, 2003), so it is essential to be aware of their challenges in realizing their educational goals. In the state of California, it is estimated that between 5,800 and 7,450 undocumented youth are eligible for its in-state tuition, or “AB 540” status, as provided by recent legislative action to make college more affordable for qualifying California high school graduates (Abrego, 2008). Given the policy attention to undocumented immigrants from state legislatures and the Congress, the key argument for promoting their academic transition to college is that college aspirants should not be penalized for circumstances brought on by actions beyond their control. Rather, the efforts of undocumented students to overcome considerable odds (Chávez, 1998) should be rewarded via policies that facilitate their transition into, and persistence in, college.


This analysis draws from the definitions introduced by Pew Hispanic Center researcher Jeffrey Passel. Specifically, Passel (2005) used the term unauthorized migrants to refer to a person “who resides in the United States, but who is not a U.S. citizen, has not been admitted for permanent residence, and is not in a set of specific authorized temporary statuses permitting longer-term residence and work” (p. 2). He went on to elaborate that the term undocumented immigrant (Hoefer, Rytina, & Campbell, 2006) is not as accurate in describing individuals who may be able to reside and work in the United States under counterfeit documentation and/or who are not likely to stay permanently in this country. For purposes of this analysis, the discussion of the distribution of undocumented immigrants will rely largely on Passel’s data and thus definitions, as well as other U.S. Census reports that do use the term undocumented immigrant.

Passel (2005), using data from the 2000 U.S. Census and the March 2004 Current Population Survey, estimated that of the 35.7 million foreign-born individuals residing in the country in 2004, 10.3 million, or 29%, were “unauthorized migrants.” He also noted that most of the unauthorized migrants arrived after 1990, with approximately two thirds of them residing in the country less than 10 years. Pertinent to the discussion of access to, and participation in, postsecondary education is the estimate that roughly 25%–40% of the unauthorized migrants are termed “visa overstayers.” These are individuals who entered the country with a temporary visa but stayed beyond its expiration or perhaps violated other conditions of their admission. Unfortunately, there is not adequate information readily available regarding the overstayer population to determine its possible impact on postsecondary institutions.

Of the estimated 10.3 million unauthorized migrants in the United States, 57%, or 5.9 million, are from Mexico (Passel, 2005). Another 24% are from other Latin American countries, representing 2.5 million people. Nine percent (1 million) of unauthorized migrants are from Asian countries, and individuals from European countries and Canada constitute 6% of the total unauthorized migrant population. Finally, an additional 4% of this population are from African countries and other nations (slightly fewer than half a million).

An important note regarding the distribution of undocumented immigrant students is that estimates show that approximately 1.5 million mixed-status families exist, in which there is one or more unauthorized parents and at least one child who is a U.S. citizen by birth (Passel, 2005). This mixed-status group constitutes 58% of the total number of “unauthorized families” with children. In addition, there are nearly half million families with at least one unauthorized parent and a mixture of both U.S. citizen (by birth) and unauthorized migrant children.

Of course, part of the challenge in reporting these figures is the difficulty that educational institutions face in estimating the current distributions of undocumented students, as well as projected growth. The difficulty lies in the institution’s necessary reliance on students’ willingness to reveal their status and be counted as undocumented. Even in the case of states, such as California, where recent legislative action enables greater numbers of students to be eligible for exemption from nonresident tuition (under AB 540 status), the perceived risks of identifying themselves can still prevent campuses from accurately reporting their current numbers of undocumented students. The University of California, for example, having established the guidelines under which certain students would be eligible for nonresident tuition exemptions in 2002, reported increases in the numbers of students availing themselves of this benefit since that time. In 2006–2007, out of the total 1,246 AB 540 recipients, 265 students were counted as potentially undocumented (University of California Office of the President, 2008). It is noteworthy that the counts are based on students in the system’s database for whom no identifiable documentation status is found. Aside from this form of estimate, there is no direct method to identify students’ documentation status. On the one hand, undocumented students can feel that their status can be protected, confidential information; on the other hand, the lack of information about the students’ status can mean that a host of student support needs will remain unaddressed by the college or university.


There is scant research available on the transition to college of undocumented immigrant students, but it is useful to offer some findings from a dissertation on this topic. The dissertation used case study methods to analyze the experiences of six female Mexican immigrant students who were attending one of California’s three higher education systems in Southern California: the California Community Colleges, the California State University, and the University of California (Rangel, 2001).

Rangel (2001) used an “academic invulnerability” framework, which she explained is a view of students who, despite facing considerably adverse community, home, and/or schooling conditions, are able to succeed academically. The theory, developed by Alva and Padilla (1995, cited in Rangel, 2001), draws on child development studies of the motivation and perseverance of youngsters who experience success as classroom learners even as they navigate high-poverty, violent, unstable, or otherwise psychologically challenging situations.

The students selected to participate in Rangel’s study were motivated, high-performing students in Mexico. Rangel’s portrayal of her respondents’ early educational trajectories provides an important reminder of the within-group diversity that exists among undocumented immigrant students. The families of the students in her study came from a variety of settings and employment backgrounds in Mexico, and all migrated to the United States for economic or family-related reasons. With only one exception, the students’ educational potential was nurtured by their parents, and in all cases, there appeared to be broader family and local community support for their educational pursuits. In addition, because at least two of the respondents had one or both parents who held professional positions, there were direct influences and high expectations, not only in terms of the students’ performance in school but also regarding the quality of the education they received in both Mexico and United States.

The young women also identified a complex set of circumstances in the U.S. schools that resonate with the literature on the experiences of other immigrants and English learners in K–12 education. At least three noted that although they perceived much greater educational opportunity in the United States, particularly as publicly provided services, their schools were limited in terms of available staff who could help bridge the linguistic divide between them and their peers. However, they also discussed the considerable difference it made when they did encounter teachers and counselors who not only were bilingual but also possessed knowledge and information about higher education options. They further noted that teachers’ efforts to provide support via educational pipeline programs helped address some of the unknowns regarding higher education—services that ranged from direct academic support to opportunities to visit campuses and facilitating contact with college representatives.

At the time Rangel conducted her study, California’s legislation to provide residency status for in-state tuition purposes to undocumented immigrant students who met certain eligibility criteria for higher education purposes was not yet statute. Thus, for her study participants, the greatest challenge to full participation in their college activities centered on the dual issues of citizenship status and economic class. Although some of the women secured small scholarships that did not depend on their immigration status, they were more likely to have to hide their status in order to enroll in their classes.

The most crucial factors that surfaced as obstacles for Rangel’s respondents were educational and financial in nature. They experienced ongoing difficulty if their perceived abilities in English were low, particularly as the rigor of the college coursework increased. Moreover, at the community college level, there was a lack of information and guidance relative to their preparation for transfer to a 4-year institution—an issue that also affects other low-income students of color (Rendón, 2002; Schneider et al., 2006; Shulock & Moore, 2005).

In addition, Rangel’s study participants’ undocumented status precluded on-campus employment. Their limited employment options compromised their ability to both meet the financial obligations associated with having a nonresident status—usually translating into many times the rate of fees and tuition that a resident student would have to pay—and contribute financially (and in other ways) to the well-being of their families. Even as they were involved in the academic transition from K–12 to college, respondents were also in the process of negotiating their adult caregiver roles as full contributors to their families.


In response to the obstacles faced by undocumented immigrant students in transitioning to college, legislative efforts at the state and federal levels have ensued with a still uncertain future. For example, California’s AB 540 legislation was passed by the state legislature in 2001 to provide residency status to undocumented immigrant students meeting strict eligibility criteria—including attendance in and graduation from a California high school—in order to enable them to pay in-state tuition or fees at accredited institutions. Although AB 540 did remove a significant obstacle for many college students, it does not provide eligibility for publicly funded financial aid. Moreover, as this article is being written, a pending challenge in the California courts may lead to a repeal of this legislation. Despite the grim prospects of such an occurrence, recent actions among the undocumented students themselves—and their allies from across various educational and other social institutions—are aimed at remaining proactive in clarifying the positive social benefit of completing their college degrees (UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, 2008a). It is also important to note that similar legislation has been enacted in several states across the United States, and the impact of such policies is beginning to be examined by researchers as well (Abrego, 2008; Flores & Chapa, 2009).

At the federal level, the proposed Development, Relief, & Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act specifies eligibility for both residency for in-state tuition purposes and federal financial aid (National Immigration Law Center, 2006). The DREAM Act was introduced for the second time in 2007, but it has not yet reached a congressional vote. Immigrant and education rights advocates have sought to separate this legislation from the broader concern for immigration reform, both to expedite the process of legislative approval and to sharpen the focus on offering support to academically able students who will graduate from American high schools ready to proceed to college. Approval of the federal DREAM Act is also viewed as an important clarification of the stance of the federal government on granting residency status for students who meet strict criteria for states that are more reluctant to pass legislation that is viewed as being potentially noncompliant with federal law.


As can be seen, the needs of undocumented students overlap with those of ELs in their transition to college. Indeed, although it is possible that a sizeable percentage of undocumented students are fully college eligible, as Rangel’s study might suggest, it is also likely that more recent arrivals to the United States are in need of language support services that schools are hard-pressed to provide. Because of the limited access to data and the paucity of available research, what we need to know still far outweighs what we currently know about the college transition experiences of undocumented immigrant students.

Despite the challenge of minimal research on the high school-to-college transition specifically, it is encouraging to note a growing body of scholarship on undocumented students in higher education. With the passage of in-state tuition policies enabling greater numbers of undocumented students to gain access to some forms of higher education, new studies are emerging that help to clarify the variety of issues surrounding the college experiences of these students. Additional dissertation research has been conducted on college preparation, access, and financial aid for undocumented students (Albrecht, 2007; Lopez, 2007; Perry, 2004; Rincón, 2005). These studies have further detailed how educational opportunity for undocumented students involves risk, emotional costs, and a complex balancing of family, work, and student life. Additional new research has attended to the impact of in-state tuition policies and programs that provide greater access to colleges and universities in California, Texas, and other states (Abrego, 2008; Drachman, 2008; Flores & Chapa, 2009; Frum, 2008; R. G. Gonzales, 2007). These studies have revealed a variety of complexities associated with undocumented students’ participation in college under these policies, including some important areas of student empowerment and mobilization on their own behalf (Abrego, 2008; Diaz-Strong & Meiners, 2007; Seif, 2004; S.I.N. Collective, 2007; UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, 2008a, 2008b). Finally, there is a growing concern among higher education practitioners about their responses to the needs of undocumented students, particularly as these students become more openly represented on their campuses. To this end, research and practical resources have emerged to begin to address these issues (e.g., Center for Higher Education Policy, 2006; Miksch, 2005; University of California, Davis, 2008). It remains to be seen how these research efforts will translate (or not) into greater inroads on issues such as the availability of public financial aid for undocumented students—a challenge that nearly all recent studies of undocumented students’ experiences in higher education have discussed as a key barrier to their transition to and persistence in college.


If we are to take seriously our national commitment to create greater access to higher education, it is important to move away from conceptualizations of immigrant students as taking up resources and toward a view that they are deserving of an investment of resources. In light of their growing presence in our public schools, our future as a nation is likely better served by the view that it is in our interest to invest in these students’ strengths in order to address and overcome their educational needs (Rodriguez, 2007). Given that U.S. schools are required to provide access to public education to children regardless of their immigration status, it is logical to ensure that those resources invested early in their educational process are followed with resources (and systems) that ensure the full realization of their potential as they prepare for entry into higher education.

The findings and conclusions from the research on immigrant education in the United States suggest an obligation to more directly translate research results into changes in practice and policy that make a difference for students. Doing so, however, has proved to be very difficult. Thus, it seems logical that part of our obligation as researchers—particularly those among us who also consider ourselves to be educators and/or policy practitioners—extends to this translation work. That is, an important implication of this analysis for policy and practice is the need to explore methods for going the step further in our work to identify how a particular set of findings interfaces with the great variety of local contexts within which English learners and undocumented immigrants pursue their educational goals. In other words, how can a given school district, with unprecedented numbers of ELs, eliminate its reliance on academic ability tracking that systematically reduces the likelihood that those students will have access to college preparatory courses? It should not be the sole obligation of the educational counselor or, as is more likely the case, the district’s English language development (ELD) specialist, to decipher the results of research studies in order to understand how educational institutions are to respond appropriately. Rather, the implication here is toward a closer partnership among all educational entities (K–16), as well as community linkages to the creative application of research-based strategies found to increase the probability for success among ELs (as just one example).

Beyond the notion of identifying new avenues for partnering to translate research findings into action in the practical and policy arenas, there also emerge some important implications for engaging colleagues across disciplinary traditions. Although the use of interdisciplinary research approaches is not new in the research on immigrants in the United States, it is still important to point out that interdisciplinary methodologies and collaborations are invaluable to our grasping what it takes for, say, an undocumented immigrant student to persevere through the transition into the U.S. social and educational system and onward to college. We must consider not only asking new research questions but also revisiting established questions using approaches that tap into the expertise of our colleagues outside of the field of education. In this regard, the universities themselves can be considered resources to be brought to bear in our pursuit of understanding and supporting the transition to college of EL and undocumented immigrant students. The postsecondary institutions in the United States represent, indeed, a multifaceted set of resources. These resources encompass directly applied expertise—as in the case of the teacher education departments that dedicate their programs to increasing the numbers of well-prepared bilingual educators—and the intermediary roles played in partnerships that bring together nonprofit agencies and community-based service organizations aimed at addressing the special circumstances of immigrant students.


Circling back to the opening discussion on the broad lessons we have learned from the literature on the educational attainment of immigrant students, one notes how the particular circumstances of EL and undocumented students further add to the complexity. For example, the generational differences among immigrant students in their overall educational attainment are likely to be complicated relative to students’ ability to acquire skills in English and substantive knowledge of college preparatory subjects. Similarly, for undocumented immigrant students whose families are considered “mixed status” or whose type of immigration status differs from their parents, the trajectory that might facilitate their entry to college is fraught with obstacles. In the cases of EL and undocumented students, our task as researchers is to build on the lessons generated by large-scale studies by examining more deeply the ways in which these students are negotiating the processes that form their paths to higher education. The few studies that are available regarding secondary EL students and undocumented immigrants, for example, highlight the need to collect more detailed accounts to fully document not only the students’ challenges but also the ways that students are navigating the various educational and social systems that they encounter. The intricate nature of their actions  and decision-making processes are critically important contributions to the theories guiding our work.

Much more research on the responsiveness of institutions, pre-K–16 and beyond, to the needs of EL and undocumented immigrant students is also sorely needed. It seems that in the existing literature, which identifies important details about how individual students negotiate their educational success, the educational institutions are often portrayed as rigid, bureaucratic organizations. Thus, the educational innovations that currently serve the needs of these groups successfully should be documented, evaluated, and shared so that important lessons can be drawn for policy and practice from those efforts. Likewise, a better conceptualization of institutional responsiveness to student needs at every level of the educational system would help to expand the literature relative to English learner and undocumented immigrant students. In this spirit, eight areas of future research are outlined:


Studies are needed about the role of institutions in facilitating EL and undocumented students’ academic achievement. Much of the current literature provides stories that emphasize individual students or groups of students navigating the various educational systems. It does not provide enough information about what the school or university role is in facilitating or hindering students’ academic progress, thereby rendering an understanding of students’ “success” as based in resiliency factors instead of identifying those aspects—positive and negative—about educational settings that educational policy can actually influence more directly.


Studies are needed that illuminate the particular teacher shortages in the midwestern and southern regions of the United States and identify the degree to which EL students there are more vulnerable regarding their ability to realize their academic potential. Similarly, in states with longer histories of large immigrant populations, and thus larger numbers of EL and undocumented students, it is important to know more about the high-growth suburbs and rural communities that may not have the infrastructure to adequately address the needs of ELs and undocumented immigrant students.


More research on the secondary EL population is needed, including investigations that distinguish between newly arrived adolescents and long-term ELs, whose educational trajectory occurred in the United States. It is imperative to begin filling the knowledge gap about the capacity of secondary schools (middle and high schools both) to support access to both English language skills and content in college preparatory subjects. Few studies exist that provide insights into students’ or teachers’ perspectives on the challenges involved in ensuring that EL students have postsecondary options. Likewise, little is known about the role of secondary schools and their districts in providing support and information for undocumented immigrant students whose entire education occurs in those systems but who subsequently face considerable obstacles in pursuing higher education.


More research about the factors related to the diminished educational success of immigrants (e.g., the second generation and beyond) over time is needed. What impact might institutional racism and other forms of institutional bias, for example, have on the educational outcomes of 1.5 and second-generation immigrant students? To the degree that English language proficiency is a gatekeeping factor, as well as immigrant status within a growing “anti-immigrant” context, what are the subtler, hegemonic factors that shape students’ experiences in their quest to pursue higher education? These questions remain critically important to understanding how the initial “advantage” of children of immigrants can be bolstered and provide further insights into the tragic educational outcomes noted for the third-plus generation students.


Given that the pre-K–12 educational system, particularly in the secondary years, appears to be ill-equipped to meet the challenges of EL students (and, to some degree, undocumented immigrant students) in their transition to college, the role of community colleges becomes increasingly salient. The work of MDRC is likely to yield important insights from programs that carry significant potential to meet the dual challenge of addressing the “remedial” needs of ESL students and increasing the likelihood of transferring to a 4-year institution. However, additional research is required to understand how the funding structures, both for support of the operations of the community colleges and for student access to financial aid, are aligning with the challenges that exist for EL/ESL students as they attempt to pursue higher education. Likewise, the capacity of community colleges appears to be significantly overburdened given the multiple roles and demands ascribed to this segment of higher education (Blumenthal, 2002). Thus, more study is warranted to understand the interconnected roles that pre-K–12, community colleges, and 4-year institutions play (or need to play) in order to respond to the growing EL and immigrant student population.


With the current number of states adopting DREAM Act-like legislation to provide undocumented immigrant students with resident status for in-state tuition purposes, it is important to understand both the impact and the challenges of implementing such policies. For example, undocumented immigrant students are already in a very vulnerable position as students; they often experience stress that is due to fear of discovery of their immigration status as they attempt to be full participants in programs and opportunities offered at their college campuses. Key questions that emerge for campuses are: How do such policies affect students’ willingness to reveal their status in order to avail themselves of this lowered tuition cost, and how do campuses address unique student support needs (e.g., access to legal counsel regarding immigration status)? In addition, unlike the proposed federal DREAM Act, state tuition policies do not include eligibility for scholarships, grants, or loans. It would be important to understand from the perspectives of students and campus staff how this limitation of in-state tuition policies is shaping student choices about postsecondary education, including information about experiences of those students who do avail themselves of the in-state tuition policy.


Critical to the responsiveness of institutions of higher education to their student populations is the availability of clear and accurate data. Additional efforts are recommended to ensure that accurate data on undocumented students are available. However, of equal importance is the need to safeguard the confidentiality of the students, whose sense of vulnerability unfortunately overshadows their willingness to reveal their status for university purposes. Having better and safe reporting systems would also help inform legislation at both a state and national level.


Drawing from the insights emerging from current research on undocumented students, it is recommended that research efforts also extend to examining the information dissemination practices relative to higher education options for students and their parents. Particularly at the secondary levels, it appears that good information for parents on higher educational options and financial aid are two of several areas of need in preparing both undocumented and English learner students for their transitions to college.


The lead author wishes to thank the scholars associated with the SSRC Transitions to College Project, who provided thoughtful guidance and suggestions during the preparation of this article, with special thanks to Jennifer Holdaway, Margaret Terry Orr, and Luis Fraga for their insightful feedback and editing.  Any limitations of this article are the responsibility of the authors.


1. Throughout this article, I use the term English learner (or EL) to refer to students who are identified through formal assessments as not being proficient enough in English to participate in English-language-dominant classrooms and learning environments. As noted by Gershberg, Danenberg, and Sánchez (2004), this term is often used interchangeably with the terms English language learner (ELL) and the somewhat more outdated limited English proficient (LEP).

2. We use formal education to refer to schooling; it is distinguished here from parental involvement in education, more broadly speaking, which encompasses a variety of life lessons, shared cultural and familial practices, and the development of beliefs and values.

3. Serious debate exists among educators and advocates about whether appropriate measures are used for the reclassification of students; also, some argue that a disservice could result from the reclassification of EL students to enable them to access mainstream content courses without also providing them (and their teachers) with any additional language support as the content increases in complexity. Transparency and consistency in the reclassification process is also an equity concern in that simply pursuing high reclassification rates—often used as a measure of a district’s commitment to the progress of ELs toward proficiency in English—may inaccurately indicate both student progress and school responsiveness in the absence of clearly delineated criteria and support mechanisms linked to sound instructional and assessment practices for ELs.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 10, 2009, p. 2385-2418
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15715, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 5:46:51 AM

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About the Author
  • Gloria Rodriguez
    University of California, Davis
    E-mail Author
    GLORIA M. RODRIGUEZ is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests include educational leadership and resource allocation from a critical, social justice perspective, investments in Latina/o student and community strengths to address needs, and cross-sector/interdisciplinary research that links education to other areas of social policy to support the well-being of children and youth. Recent publications include (coedited with A.R. Rolle, Routledge, 2007) To What Ends and by What Means? The Social Justice Implications of Contemporary School Finance Theory and Policy, and (coauthored with J. Fabionar, in press) “The Impact of Poverty on Students and Schools: Exploring the Social Justice Leadership Implications” in C. Marshall and M. Oliva (Eds.), Leadership for Social Justice: Making Revolutions in Education (2nd edition).
  • Lisceth Cruz
    University of California, Davis
    E-mail Author
    LISCETH CRUZ is currently a doctoral student in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis, with an emphasis in school organization and educational policy. Her research interests include educational issues affecting disenfranchised, underserved, and vulnerable student populations. She also works as a program coordinator in the UCD Student Programs and Activities Center, focusing on the recruitment and retention of Latino students in higher education. She earned an M.A. in Mexican American Studies at San Jose State University, where she engaged in demystifying the lack of Latino parental engagement in the education of their children.
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