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Undocumented Immigrants in Higher Education: A Preliminary Analysis


by Lisa D. Garcia & William G. Tierney - 2011

Background/Context: Undocumented immigrant postsecondary students are an understudied group on American campuses. The authors suggest that increased national attention on the topic of undocumented immigration warrants an in-depth study of a small subset of the larger undocumented population—college students.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The research questions guiding this analysis are: (1) How do the formal educational experiences of unauthorized college students affect their postsecondary education goals? (2) How do undocumented students attend college on a daily basis (e.g., transportation, finances, studying, employment, support networks)? (3) What role does social, political, and economic support play in unauthorized students’ success in college? The purpose of the analysis is to outline the most significant challenges that undocumented college students face in pursuing a postsecondary education. The intent is to inform a research community about those challenges and suggest future research directions.

Research Design: The manuscript begins with an overview of previous research on the topic of undocumented immigrant postsecondary students. The authors discuss three traditional areas in which first-generation, low-socioeconomic-status students encounter difficulties while pursuing a college education—financial obstacles, academic preparation, and perceptions of belonging. The article then considers the challenges these students face by way of a yearlong qualitative study that involved interviews and observations with 40 students and 5 educators knowledgeable about undocumented students. The authors frame these findings within a social capital theoretical framework that helps identify two themes—relationships and finances—concerning how undocumented students’ access to social capital can be limited by their immigration status.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Research pertaining to undocumented students is growing in its production and diversity. The authors conclude with recommendations for improving future research focusing on undocumented college students based on the project’s emerging themes.

This article pertains to the challenges that undocumented immigrant college students encounter. We first offer background on one of the least studied groups in higher education—undocumented students. We then consider the challenges these students face by way of a yearlong qualitative study that involved interviews and observations with 40 students and 5 educators knowledgeable about undocumented students. The students attended a variety of postsecondary institutions, largely public institutions in California. We call on social capital theory to analyze the data, and offer two themes that arose from the research project. Our purpose in this article is modest in its scope: We intend to shed light on a little-investigated group of individuals. We begin with a discussion of undocumented college students and the major challenges they face while earning their postsecondary degrees. The study’s results are framed by a social capital theoretical framework that highlights how individual students and institutions may or may not facilitate postsecondary educational goals. Before proceeding to the data, we discuss the methodology employed throughout the duration of the study. Finally, we offer suggestions for future research on the population.


FRAMING UNDOCUMENTED STUDENTS


Undocumented immigrant postsecondary students are an understudied group on American campuses. As Rodriguez and Cruz (2009) noted, “Few studies have been undertaken to consider the specific issue of the transition to college of undocumented immigrant students” (p. 2401). By “undocumented,” we mean individuals residing in the United States “who are not U.S. citizens, who do not hold current permanent resident visas, or who have not been granted permission under a set of specific authorized temporary statuses for longer-term residence and work” (Passel & Cohn, 2009, p. vi); in many cases, such individuals have resided in the United States for much, if not most, of their lives, and came here as infants and young children with their parents. A recent study published by the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there are approximately 11.9 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States; about half of these individuals live in four states—California, Texas, Florida, and New York (Passel & Cohn). There are 1.5 million unauthorized1 immigrants under the age of 18 living in the United States.


Besides basic demographic information, relatively little is known about those unauthorized immigrants who pursue a college education (Abrego, 2006). What we do know is that the vast majority of these individuals have attended primary and secondary schools in the United States. Of the undocumented individuals 18–24 years of age who completed high school, 49% are in college or have attended college (Passel & Cohn, 2009). Among unauthorized high school graduates aged 18–24 who arrived at age 14 or older, only 42% are in college or have attended college, compared with 61% who arrived before age 14. The unauthorized status of these students and the accompanying difficulties with studying a largely underground population complicate attempts to conduct in-depth analysis of this group.


National and state data pertaining to undocumented immigrants remain imperfect. Previous estimates set the number of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for 5 years or longer and who graduate from high school each year at approximately 65,000 (Passel, 2003). This group makes up the potential beneficiaries of the federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The DREAM Act is proposed federal legislation that would allow states to charge undocumented immigrants in-state tuition and would provide a multistep path to citizenship for some residents who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Eligible students would have to fulfill certain education or military commitments.


Batalova and Fix (2006) estimated that the law’s enactment would potentially make 360,000 unauthorized high school graduates aged 18–24 eligible for conditional status. Given the higher percentage of undocumented college students entering the country before the age of 14, it is likely that many of these same students qualify for the reduced in-state academic fees in the 10 states that offer such benefits to unauthorized students (National Immigration Law Center, 2009; Passel & Cohn, 2009). However, in some states, proof of citizenship or legal residency is required to attend college, and in others, undocumented students mostly qualify for out-of-state tuition (Rincon, 2008).


Although basic demographic information is available, we know very little about the lives of undocumented students when they attend college (Rincon, 2008). Quantitative studies of undocumented students highlight the persistence and academic resilience of students (e.g., Flores & Chapa, 2009; Perez, Espinoza, Ramos, Coronado, & Cortes, 2009). Although such studies are useful in painting broad strokes of undocumented college student experiences, they do not provide the details about how matriculation actually occurs. Other scholars (e.g., Abrego, 2006, 2008; Gildersleeve, 2010; Gonzales, 2007, 2009; Perez, 2009; Perez Huber, 2009) have conducted qualitative interviews and observations, seeking to understand students’ experiences living in the shadows of society while simultaneously pursuing postsecondary education goals. These accounts provide a more nuanced description of undocumented students’ experiences. What we focus on in this article is some of the daily challenges that undocumented students face when pursuing a postsecondary education.


CONNECTING THE RESEARCH TO THE STUDY POPULATION


For the purposes of this article, we paid particular attention to three primary challenges that undocumented students encounter while pursuing a college education. These issues—financial obstacles, academic preparation, and perceptions of belonging—provide background for the study results as well as how we approached the research process from conception to presentation of results.


FINANCIAL OBSTACLES


The financial situation of most unauthorized students is comparable to that of low-income college students. Perna (2005) explained that low-income students are particularly conscious of the human, economic, and social costs involved in the decision to go to college; these costs include forgone earnings and leisure time as well as direct college costs. Because of apprehensions and perceptions regarding college, low-income students are less likely to apply to college, with an almost 30% gap between enrollment of high- and low-income students (Gladieux & Swail, 1999). Low-income undocumented students are less likely to pursue a higher education because of the perceived and actual costs; they are not particularly confident that they will see a return on investment. For those students who are either documented or U.S. citizens, these concerns are usually countered by access to comprehensive financial aid, campus employment opportunities, and alternative funding. These three forms of funding, which are instrumental in increasing college access for low-income, first-generation students, are not as readily available, if at all, to unauthorized students.


Low-income students usually receive financial support for college attendance. Higher levels of financial aid generally correlate with higher college enrollment rates for these students (Heller, 1999; Kane, 1999; St. John, 2006). Undocumented students are ineligible for federal and state financial aid and most scholarships because legal residency or citizenship is a prerequisite for qualification (Perez et al., 2009). The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) prohibits states from offering higher education benefits to undocumented students without offering the same benefits to U.S. citizens and permanent and temporary legal residents. IIRIRA does not constitute a federal ban on undocumented students attending college. Rather, the legislation restricts what individual states can do to make higher education more accessible to unauthorized students, in the form of financial aid and in-state academic fees. Financing postsecondary education without traditional financial aid resources is a significant undertaking for undocumented college students (Gonzales, 2007, 2009). Without access to financial aid, many students do not consider higher education a realistic goal and instead opt to pursue low-paying jobs in which immigration status is not closely monitored (Hermes, 2008).


Employment restrictions on undocumented immigrants further complicate a student’s financial conundrum. Most unauthorized college students do not have legal permission to work in the United States. Even if students secure employment to help finance their education before and/or during college, jobs are usually off campus, low paying, and concentrated in the service industry (Hermes, 2008; Perez et al., 2009; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). Saving enough money to pay full academic fees in four-year institutions, as well as paying for books, transportation, and living expenses, is a significant task for many college-bound unauthorized students.


Finally, requirements of citizenship or immigration documentation for alternative funding—unauthorized-friendly scholarships, stipends, and sponsors—limit the financial options of undocumented students. Securing alternative funding for college attendance is critical for a low-income student paying out of pocket for college. Often, students discover their legal status during the college application process; this relatively late revelation of one’s status can inhibit securing alternative funding sources in a timely manner (National Immigration Law Center, 2009). Even students who are aware of their status are disadvantaged because alternative funding sources are limited and usually highly competitive (Madera et al., 2008). The result is that few students can rely on these funding sources to pay for college. Even those students originally bound for four-year institutions may opt for enrollment in two-year institutions because of reduced costs (Hermes, 2008). Enrolling in a two-year college creates another hurdle; some scholars believe that beginning a postsecondary education at a two-year institution decreases a student’s chances of obtaining a bachelor’s degree (Shaw, 1997). Financing a college education with little or no money is overwhelming for the majority of unauthorized students (Gonzales, 2009).


ACADEMIC PREPARATION


The academic preparation of unauthorized college students is another substantial obstacle in the journey toward an undergraduate degree. Competing with better prepared and better informed students is challenging to undocumented students already burdened with trying to figure out how to pay for college. Attending low-performing schools, being a first-generation student, and facing personal obstacles are three hurdles that many undocumented students have to overcome in order to continue their education.


Undocumented students, like other low-income students, often attend low-performing, ethnically isolated schools located in concentrated pockets of urban inner-city communities (Gonzales, 2009; Teranishi & Briscoe, 2006). Violence is more prevalent in the schools and neighborhoods, distracting students from their academic studies (Abrego, 2006). These schools have less qualified teachers, offer fewer college preparation courses, and receive less funding. Low-performing schools are a primary reason that undocumented students, as low-income students, often graduate underprepared for the rigors of college-level coursework (Conway, 2009).


Attending low-performing and less rigorous schools has a negative impact on overall college readiness. Adelman (2006) pointed to the rigor of high school coursework as a leading indicator of college readiness at high school graduation. Students who lack strong English language skills are at a significant disadvantage in college compared with their well-prepared peers. This disadvantage is especially relevant for immigrant students, who are more likely to enroll in English as a second language courses in college (Casas-Frier & Hansen, 2006). Scholars also found that when students require significant remediation when they transition to college, they may be less inclined to spend the extra time preparing for college-level courses (Melguizo, Hagedorn, & Cypers, 2008). For unauthorized students, this situation is compounded by the fact that they largely do not receive financial assistance to take these extra remedial courses.


Many unauthorized college students are often the first in their families to attend college and are frequently the first with a high school degree (Gonzales, 2009; Perez et al., 2009). First-generation students rely more on institutional actors for critical college information because their families are less likely to provide college preparation information at home (Stanton-Salazar, 1997). Inner-city and low-performing high schools generally have fewer college-going networks among the student body, with staff and faculty focusing more on graduation rates, standardized testing, and truancy issues (Teranishi & Briscoe, 2006; Tierney & Venegas, 2006). Focusing on those factors rather than college access often contributes to low-income and first-generation students’ not receiving academic information about college in a timely manner. This situation is more severe for undocumented students because they are unable or hesitant to participate in some college preparation and mentoring programs as a result of their immigration status (Gonzales, 2009). First-generation undocumented college students thus often arrive at postsecondary institutions with less experience and knowledge and fewer resources to successfully matriculate in college.


Academic preparation during high school or even earlier is not always a linear trajectory for undocumented students. Some students experience a sense of despair during their educational careers and withdraw from school-related activities (Gonzalez, Plata, Garcia, Torres, & Urrieta, 2003; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001); students no longer strive for academic and extracurricular distinctions, letting their grades fall and discontinuing their extracurricular activities. The realization that they may be unable to continue their education usually occurs during high school. They also begin to realize the problems they will encounter in society as undocumented adults. Such lapses in motivation frequently have deleterious effects on students’ abilities to prepare for and attend college. As a result, the students who suffer this malaise yet still make it to college report that they are often not as competitive and prepared for admission or funding opportunities because of their past withdrawal from academics (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco).


PERCEPTIONS OF BELONGING


Much of the legitimacy and sense of belonging that undocumented students lose over time is directly related to the transition between K–12 schooling and college enrollment. The Plyler v. Doe (1982) decision ensures that undocumented children receive a K–12 education but stops short of declaring public education a fundamental right (Seif, 2004). The formal K–12 system that defines unauthorized immigrants as students also facilitates their inclusion and indoctrination into American society (Abrego, 2006). Students learn the history, culture, and language of the United States through their formal education. The transition to college and adulthood can dismantle perceptions of personal, institutional, and societal inclusion.


Feeling “included” as an undocumented student amid constant academic, personal, and financial obstacles is important to student success (Perez Huber, 2009). Individual feelings of inclusion are diminished as unauthorized students transition from a childhood with guaranteed K–12 education to an adulthood with no educational guarantees. The coping mechanisms they develop to feel normal and legitimate are essential to their success as college students (Contreras, 2009; Perez et al., 2009; Perez Huber). For example, constant questioning of inclusion can begin when undocumented students are not able to drive because they do not have a driver’s license or when they do not attend a school-sponsored trip that requires long-distance or international travel. Students may also have to answer questions from peers about why they attend a community college instead of a four-year institution, why they cannot go to a nightclub that requires identification for entry, or why they took a term off from school.


Scholars also highlight the importance of ethnic and racial minority students feeling included and welcomed in educational institutions as a prerequisite for student success (Contreras, 2009; Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pedersen & Allen, 1999; Solórzano, Allen, & Carroll, 2002). Ethnically and racially diverse students, faculty, and staff are indicators of a supportive environment for these students. For undocumented students who are also overwhelmingly ethnic and racial minorities, inclusion goes beyond diversity at the institutional level. Abrego (2008) explained that undocumented students’ feelings of inclusion on college campuses are constantly under threat because their immigration status is equivalent to illegality. Contreras (2009) described how some undocumented students have negative experiences with institutional staff members. For many students, their illegality translates into a vulnerable, inferior status within the larger society and among their college peers (Abrego, 2008; Olivas, 2009); even if they have a record of academic excellence, they still may feel that they do not have the same rights as U.S. citizens and documented immigrants to attend college.


Undocumented immigrants often live in the shadows of society because of the legal issues that accompany their illegal status (Chavez, 1998). Abrego (2008) explained that “their status is a constant reminder that they [are] different, vulnerable, and considered suspect” (p. 723) within their local and national communities. Even though they are long-standing members of the community, they are still considered outsiders by a national legal system that assigns different rights to citizens and aliens. Their status as undocumented immigrants amounts to a life of official exclusion from the political and social environments they inhabit (Abrego, 2008; Olivas, 2009; Seif, 2004).


Perceptions of feeling unwelcome in society overwhelm many undocumented immigrants (Perez Huber, 2009; Perry, 2006). Feelings of difference and being an outsider accompany immigrants’ fear of deportation, isolation, and depression (Contreras, 2009; Dozier, 1993; Perez, 2009; Perez et al., 2009; Perry). Isolation from the larger community limits contact with individuals and organizations in a position to assist unauthorized students with accomplishing their goals. In the case of low-income and first-generation students, relationships with peers are especially critical because they lack other social relationships and resources that foster successful college matriculation (Dennis, Phinney, & Chuateco, 2005; Stanton-Salazar & Dornbusch, 1995).


Some undocumented college students modify their academic and social activities to minimize the possibility of being identified as unauthorized by school officials or law enforcement (Perez, 2009). Refraining from communal social activities limits the opportunities of these students to make friends and contacts, people who can possibly assist with educational plans. Feelings of inclusion in the community are critical to helping undocumented students bridge networks of people and resources that may assist with their educational goals.


RESEARCH QUESTIONS


Given the challenges that many unauthorized students face, we decided to investigate the lives of 40 students to see how these and other issues affect their educational goals. What is largely absent from existing literature on undocumented students is an inventory of the daily struggles and challenges that students face in college. Throughout the study, we were guided by three primary research questions: (1) How do the formal educational experiences of unauthorized college students affect their postsecondary education goals? (2) How do undocumented students attend college on a daily basis (e.g., transportation, finances, studying, employment, support networks)? (3) What role does social, political, and economic support play in unauthorized students’ success in college? What actually constitutes support?


In what follows, we first delineate the theoretical lens we use in addressing these questions and analyzing these students’ daily lives. We then outline the method employed in the provisional study.


SOCIAL CAPITAL AND UNDOCUMENTED STUDENTS


Social capital is a framework that enables individuals and groups to accomplish particular goals through network development. As Warren, Thompson, and Saegert (2001) succinctly noted, “Social capital refers to the set of resources that inhere in relationships of trust and cooperation between people” (p. 1). The underlying assumption is that networks and group affiliations are likely to have positive benefits that result in the acquisition of social capital. The use of the word capital is purposeful. Just as economic capital enables an individual entrée into certain arenas, and human capital pertains to the skills an individual has that provide for employment, social capital also facilitates movement, albeit with a different form of capital. Social capital pertains to interpersonal networks that provide individuals with cultural resources that they are able to exploit in other areas of social life. Individuals rich in social capital have the ability to increase their economic capital. A person with little or no social capital is likely to have a more difficult time acquiring economic and human capital.


Along with classic, human, and cultural capital, social capital theory provides researchers with another lens by which to examine individuals’ varying success in obtaining surplus value and returns. The theory’s application to social, economic, and political problems generally yields a resounding conclusion: Relationships matter. Adler and Kwon (2002) offered a general definition of social capital that resonates with how social capital is conceptualized across fields. They defined social capital as the “goodwill that is engendered by the fabric of social relations and that can be mobilized to facilitate action” (p. 17).


Social capital is the investment in social networks as well as in mutual recognition and acknowledgment. Implicit in these networks of social relations is the overall value to a network member. Knowing many people does not create quality social capital. Rather, quality social capital is dependent on the strength and quantity of the human, cultural, economic, and social capital that individuals within a network possess and access over a lifetime (Kim & Schneider, 2005).


Social capital theory is one way to understand how individuals and networks interact within a specific social structure. The theory explores how individuals access resources through social relationships, and which types of relationships and resources are most conducive to building social capital. Therefore, the unit of analysis can be at both the individual and group levels. Education researchers are interested in applying the theory to understand how individual students’ social relationships and resources affect their academic trajectories within educational institutions. The views of sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and James Coleman are useful in conceptualizing how structural and individual inequalities may influence undocumented students’ abilities to pursue educational goals.


PIERRE BOURDIEU’S “BRIDGING” SOCIAL CAPITAL


Pierre Bourdieu became involved in social capital theory by way of his interest in the foundations of social order. As an extension of the social order, Bourdieu posited that economic, cultural, and social capital were grounded in the larger theories of social reproduction, and symbolic power and goods previously outlined by Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. Bourdieu (1986) defined social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (p. 248). Membership in a particular network allows an individual to claim resources that are held collectively by the group. Bourdieu also explained that the size of the network determines the volume of social capital possessed by an individual. Further, the social obligations and connections contained within networks are at times convertible into economic capital. The point we shall make is that undocumented students are particularly “unnetworked” with regard to facilitating transitions to college. To be sure, they may have familial networks, but in general, such networks do not help first-generation college-goers with the transition to college.


According to Portes (1998), Bourdieu’s concept of social capital can be reduced to two primary elements: (a) the social relationship that allows an individual to claim the resources of his or her network associates, and (b) the quantity and quality of those network resources. In part, it is through social capital that individuals have access to other types of capital—namely economic and cultural capital. Capital also begets capital so that a linear relationship does not exist, but the accumulation in one domain may facilitate accumulation in another. That is, individuals who are economically wealthy may well have access to social networks that enable the creation of social capital, and so on. Academics, however, may not be economically wealthy, but their accumulation of cultural capital may enable them to form networks as well. Our point here is that these forms of capital are constantly interacting with one another in a manner that Bourdieu suggests privileges some and marginalizes others. In minimizing access to capital, the dominant class secures its commanding position within society (Lin, 1999; Portes, 1998).


Bourdieu’s (1986) concept of social capital requires a constant stream of interactions and exchanges on the part of network members. Further, he believes that social capital is an asset of the privileged classes in society. Horvat (2001) explained that Bourdieu’s sociology “aims at bridging the gap between individual action and social structure in shaping human interaction” (p. 200). In other words, social capital is just another apparatus of a larger social system of accessing resources and the reproduction of social class and stratification. This “bridging” view helps explain the varying levels of success among individuals because their actions can be facilitated by their direct and indirect links to others in their respective social networks (Adler & Kwon, 2002).


JAMES COLEMAN’S “BONDING” SOCIAL CAPITAL


James Coleman, an American sociologist, came to contribute to social capital theory by way of his research on educational attainment in American communities. Unlike Bourdieu, Coleman strongly believes that social capital is not limited to the powerful in society. Rather, individuals of all socioeconomic backgrounds access and build social capital during the course of their lives. Coleman (1990) stated that social capital


constitutes a particular kind of resource available to an actor. Social capital is defined by its function. It is not a single entity but a variety of different entities, with two elements in common: they all consist of some aspect of social structures, and they facilitate certain actions of actors—whether persons or corporate actors—within the structure. (p. S98)


Coleman (1988) believes that social capital consists of norms and social control. Thus, social capital is intangible, embodied in the relations among people, and takes three primary forms: levels of trust as evidenced by obligations, expectations, and trustworthiness of structures; information channels; and norms and sanctions that promote the common good over self-interest (Coleman, 1988, 1990; Dika & Singh, 2002).  


Coleman, like Bourdieu, emphasized the importance of social networks in his version of social capital theory. An area of departure for Coleman (1988, 1990) is his particular attention to what he labeled “intergenerational closure”—parents knowing the parents of their children's friends. Scholars believe that social closure is particularly important to social capital building in educational settings. For instance, the networks connecting the parents of adolescent classmates and friends facilitate effective norms like high school completion and college attendance (Dika & Singh, 2002). These effective norms facilitate or inhibit certain behaviors and actions, restricting an individual’s actions for the sake of the public, communal good (Coleman, 1990).


In comparison with Bourdieu’s “bridging” social capital, Coleman’s social capital is conceptualized as “bonding” (Adler & Kwon, 2002). Bonding focuses on the collectivity’s characteristics and internal structure—the “linkages among individuals or groups within the collectivity and, specifically, in those features that give the collectivity cohesiveness and thereby facilitate the pursuit of collective goals” (Adler & Kwon, p. 21). Coleman (1990) also argued that structures, like voluntary organizations, produce both intentional and unintentional social capital. The forms of social capital that provide reciprocal benefits for a lifetime generally fall within family, clan, and community relationships. Hence, it is the family’s primary responsibility to adopt certain norms conducive to advancing their children’s quality of life.


APPLYING SOCIAL CAPITAL TO EDUCATIONAL OUTCOMES


Examples of social capital are resources developed within a network of relationships of mutual acquaintances. An elite private high school is an example of an organization that has multiple opportunities for individuals to acquire social capital. In these circumstances, students participate with one another in an array of college preparation activities. Visits with one’s peers to cultural entities such as museums or the theater will be commonplace. Opportunities to visit historical and cultural landmarks and to travel abroad are frequently part of the norm rather than once-in-a-lifetime events. Parents of the students most likely have attended college, and discussions about which college to attend upon graduation will occur. One’s siblings will attend college. The school will sponsor field trips to visit colleges and universities, and the teachers will be versed on what students need to know in college and how best to prepare them. Summer employment will be education focused and geared toward learning opportunities. All these examples lend themselves to social capital development. What participants in such a school see as the “norm” and implicit may be entirely absent, or an exception, in a low-income school.


In a low-income school, for example, the opposite scenario is easy to draw. If college preparation begins at all, it will occur in senior year, when a single college counselor will try to help 800 students choose and apply to college. Students may not know anyone in their neighborhood or family who has attended college. Summer employment will be some form of physical labor, such as in a grocery store to earn money to help out the family. Visits to museums and other cultural locales will be absent from one’s activities. Classes will not cover college material, and discussions about what college is about or what professors expect from students will be largely absent.


Obviously, social and economic capital are interrelated. The development of one is likely to facilitate the acquisition of the other. The social capital that a student acquires in high school, for example, may not make the individual economically wealthier, but the networks that have been created will enable the student to attend a prestigious postsecondary institution that in turn will facilitate additional network enhancement and the eventual acquisition of well-paying employment. Attending a private high school such as the one in the previous example requires economic capital. Economic capital provides access to a variety of goods, services, and related physical and symbolic commodities. There is, of course, not always a direct relationship. A professor’s children may be rich in social capital, but not economic capital. A professional baseball player may be economically wealthy but have very little social capital. Portes (1998) is worth quoting here:


Whereas economic capital is in people's bank accounts and human capital is inside their heads, social capital inheres in the structure of their relationships. To possess social capital, a person must be related to others, and it is those others, not himself, who are the actual source of his or her advantage. (p. 7)


Accordingly, social capital should not be seen as a singular act; simply visiting a museum will be beneficial to an individual, but for the accumulation of social capital to occur, the individual has to be involved with other individuals over time, such that a network develops and is maintained. Consequently, in low-income schools where an event occurs that is an exception to the norm, the event itself may be of worth, but it is not an example of social capital development.


Membership in a group has social obligations that provide benefits to the individual, such as a credential or contacts that can be used in the future (Tierney, 2006). Consider, for example, membership in a country club. An economic cost is involved with regard to fees and yearly dues. Members commonly point out that the cost is worth it because the individual gains entrée to a pleasant place to socialize, have dinner, and play golf. From the perspective advanced here, however, the more important aspects of such a membership are the interactions that take place among members. A member has certain obligations, such as adhering to a dress code and norms of behavior, but in turn, the individual will be in an exclusive network that increases his or her social capital.  


Networks also are frequently multiple and overlapping. Individuals who are in a country club may have attended similar universities, participated in the same fraternity or sorority, or frequented the same restaurants and cultural events. Overlapping networks strengthen and extend the social capital of the individual. Bourdieu (1986) looked at such network development and concluded that social capital is a primary explanation of how inequality flourishes. He argued that memberships are exclusionary and not only provide avenues for wealth creation but also serve as barriers to equality. Such memberships create group solidarity that in turn facilitates social reproduction. Those who are in such networks acquire greater resources, and those who do not must do without. Bourdieu was particularly good at pointing out the dynamic nature of social capital. Rather than a static notion of social capital that does not change over time, Bourdieu considered how networks develop such that the social relations of power and inequality get reproduced. Students in wealthy schools, for example, are able to take Advanced Placement (AP) courses with one another that facilitate their entrance to and graduation from elite institutions. When criticism is lodged that low-income students do not have access to AP courses, the system responds by creating such classes; in turn, AP is downgraded in import, and other activities take on importance.


Such an analysis is particularly useful with regard to undocumented youth. We suggest that those who are most politically, socially, and educationally disempowered, such as undocumented youth, have the potential for agency, but the conditions for empowerment need to be aided by social organizations such as educational institutions. Accordingly, we employ social capital as an analytic tool that has the ability to help combat the challenges that undocumented youth face. Social capital itself, obviously, does not alleviate poverty, but it can leverage investment in human and cultural capital.    


Current configurations about those who are most dispossessed in general employ one of two assumptions with regard to social capital: Either those who do not have social capital lack the moral or intellectual resolve to do what needs to be done to acquire capital, or the structure of societal power has made it impossible for them to build networks. Although both assumptions differ in beliefs about the individual, the result is the same—the individual will not acquire social and, hence, economic, capital.


However, those who are poor have many networks in their lives—families, social and fraternal organizations, and churches, to name but a few. African Americans in a rural community, for example, frequently share a history, tradition, and an identity (Warren et al., 2001). The type of network in which one resides obviously provides different sources of support. The challenge is to enable those who are poor to have access to network development that facilitates a path out of poverty. As opposed to an individual approach that suggests that an individual needs to pull himself or herself up “from the bootstraps,” and if the individual does not, then he or she is to blame, the framework we advance here argues that individuals have the potential to exist in networks that enable the acquisition of social capital, but in low-income communities, those networks need to be consciously created and fostered; insofar as they are not part of the norms of an organization’s culture, such networks will not organically occur as they would in wealthy organizations such as private elite boarding schools. We now turn to a discussion regarding our research method.


METHOD


Qualitative research methods provided the basis for in-depth knowledge about the struggles that undocumented college students face in pursuing their academic goals. A subject such as undocumented college students’ experiences was suitable for qualitative examination because the underlying purpose of the investigation is to understand the experiences of these individuals, and little is known about them. We wanted students to be able to present their stories as a set of relationships and events that were complicated and transitory (Rubin & Rubin, 1995).


Our positions as U.S.-born investigators produced an insider/outsider dynamic among student interviewees (Merriam et al., 2001); we were outsiders requesting an insider’s view into how students lived their academic lives. Accordingly, we designed the study to maximize repeated interactions with students so that they might gain a sense of what we were attempting to do, and we might have a more fulsome understanding of the contours of their lives.


STUDY PARTICIPANTS


Because unauthorized students remain largely hidden on their respective campuses because of their undocumented status (Abrego, 2008; Negron-Gonzalez, 2009), we developed a “snowball sample” (Salganik & Heckathorn, 2004; Watters & Biernacki, 1989). Snowball sampling is a technique for developing a research sample in which existing study subjects suggest future subjects from among their acquaintances and contacts. This sampling technique is often used in studying populations such as undocumented immigrants. We started recruiting student interviewees with the assistance of a few undocumented students whom we knew. They introduced us to undocumented students attending their universities, which in turn connected us to unauthorized college students around the state.


Student participants had to fulfill certain requirements. They needed to be: (a) undocumented immigrants, (b) aged 18 or older, and (c) attending a postsecondary institution. All 40 interviewees spent part of their adolescence in Southern California, arriving in the United States as young as 3 months old and as old as 17 years (see Table 1). A total of 72% of the students have lived in the United States for at least a decade, and 15% arrived just in time to start high school. Only one student did not qualify for reduced in-state academic fees via California Assembly Bill 540 (AB 540)2 because he arrived at age 17 and spent only one year in high school. Thirty-eight of the students matriculated to California’s public postsecondary institutions—11 attended the University of California (UC), 16 attended California State University (CSU), and 11 attended California Community Colleges (CCC). Two students attended private institutions; 1 student attended a private university in California, and the other attended a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. Twenty-five of the interviewees were female, and 15 were male. Thirty-four of the students were Latino, originating from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Three of the students were from South Korea and Mongolia, and 3 were originally from Armenia. See Table 1 for a breakdown of the sample.


Table 1. Characteristics of Student Study Participants


Interviewee

Country of Origin

Gender

Age of Arrival

Current Age

Institution

Major

Ana

El Salvador

Female

15

24

CSU

Biology

Abel

Mexico

Male

8

19

CSU

History

Alejandro

Mexico

Male

4 months

22

CCC

Political science

Beatriz

Mexico

Female

3 months

21

CSU

English

Bertha

Mexico

Female

14

24

Private university

Environmental engineering

Connie

South Korea

Female

14

20

CCC

Undeclared

Diana

Mexico

Female

8 months

20

CSU

Sociology

Dona

El Salvador

Female

11

19

CSU

Psychology

Esther

Mexico

Female

10 months

20

CCC

Business

Francisca

Peru

Female

6

19

UC

Public policy

Flavia

Mexico

Female

5

21

UC

Math

Gloria

Mexico

Female

2

21

UC

Biology

Gracia

Argentina

Female

12

19

CCC

Business administration

Hilda

Mexico

Female

6 months

22

UC

Sociology

Kushi

Mongolia

Male

11

21

UC

Business Economics

Laura

Mexico

Female

17

23

CSU

Computer information systems; accounting

Lupe

Mexico

Female

2

21

CCC

Digital effects

Maggie

Mexico

Female

6 months

19

CSU

Special education

Mario

Peru

Male

17

21

UC

Kinesiology

Marisa

Mexico

Female

1

20

UC

Gender studies

Mateo

Guatemala

Male

9

27

CCC

Undeclared

Nacho

Mexico

Male

17

29

CSU

Economics

Octavio

Mexico

Male

10

23

CSU

Psychology; sociology

Oscar

Mexico

Male

6

19

CSU

Computer science

Paola

Mexico

Female

2

23

CSU

Psychology

Patricia

Chile

Female

3

22

UC

Sociology

Pedro

Mexico

Male

8

27

CSU

Business

Raffi

Armenia

Male

16

23

CCC

Art history; biology

Ray

Mexico

Male

10

19

CSU

International business

Ramela

Armenia

Female

10

19

CCC

Chemical engineering

Rene

Mexico

Male

9

18

UC

Math

Ruben

Mexico

Male

2

20

CCC

Undeclared

Sara

Mexico

Female

9

19

Private liberal arts

Undeclared

Simon

Mexico

Male

14

25

CSU

Marketing

Siranoush

Armenia

Female

8

19

CCC

English

Sonia

Mexico

Female

5.5

19

CSU

Liberal studies

Stefano

Mexico

Male

4

23

UC

Community studies

Sun Hee

South Korea

Female

15

21

CCC

Art

Teresa

Mexico

Female

4.5

22

CSU

Sociology

Yvette

Mexico

Female

6

18

UC

Biology


We also included in the study 5 educational professionals who regularly worked with unauthorized students at the secondary and postsecondary levels. The professionals did not necessarily work with the students we interviewed, although a few advised some of the student interviewees. One participant was an experienced high school college counselor working at a high school with several enrolled undocumented students. Another informant was a community college counselor who served as the adviser to the campus’s undocumented student support group. Two study participants were senior administrators at the CSU and UC campuses. The fifth educational professional had experience working with undocumented students at UC and CSU, and worked as a director of outreach at a private university. These professionals provided perspective on the challenges that undocumented students face. In particular, they described the institutional obstacles that students encounter while pursuing their education and provided comparisons with non-undocumented students.


DATA COLLECTION AND PROCEDURE


Individual interviews, observations, and document analysis were the primary methods employed throughout data collection. Each of the 40 students and 5 educational professionals participated in one semistructured interview during the 2008–2009 academic year. We used the same respective interview protocol for all these primary interviews (see Appendixes A and B). These interviews aimed to get to know students’ educational experiences since they arrived in the United States, focusing on their postsecondary preparation and matriculation. Each interview lasted approximately 1 hour, was conducted by the authors in a location convenient to the participants, and audio-recorded when granted permission by study participants. All but 4 student interviewees agreed to be recorded during their interviews. We also took notes during these interviews that were later paired with the transcribed interviews.


We conducted informal secondary interviews with 12 students who we believed were representative of the sample in terms of gender, ethnic background, and institution attended. These students met us either in person or spoke to us over the phone if they were unavailable to meet in person. These interviews lasted between a half hour and 1 hour and focused on issues and themes that emerged from their own primary interview or the interviews of others. For example, we noticed that several students discussed how the time spent on public transportation had a significant effect on their academic lives. Thus, during all the secondary interviews, we inquired about transportation issues.


Follow-up individual and group student observations were conducted between January 2009 and June 2009. Because many students were recruited by making presentations to local campus undocumented student support groups, we had the opportunity to observe many of the study participants at their respective campuses. We observed undocumented student club meetings—two meetings each at two different CSU campuses, two meetings at two different CCC campuses, and two meetings at one UC campus during the academic year. Our intent was to observe not only the kinds of issues that were discussed in these meetings, but also how individuals interacted with one another and with whom. Of the 40 students we interviewed, 16 students—8 CCC, 6 CSU, and 2 UC—agreed for one of us to meet them individually on their respective campuses, where we also shadowed them over the course of a day. The purpose of the observations with students over the course of a day was to come to terms with how they spent their time and with whom. We commented about the importance of networking; one purpose of the observations was to analyze the networks and individuals with whom they came into contact.  


We took written or digitally recorded observational field notes during observations when appropriate for the setting and context. When not appropriate, we took field notes immediately after the observation. We ate lunch with students, attended classes when available, and studied with students during their breaks. Much of the out-of-class observation time spent with students also involved casual conversation about their coursework, jobs, families, and social lives. In some cases, the observation was passive; we observed a class or a campus club meeting. In other cases, the observation was active; we helped staff the table at the on-campus bake sale fundraiser event or discussed graduate school options with participants over lunch. Observations provided the opportunity for us to view undocumented students’ experiences as both an insider and outsider simultaneously (Spradley, 1980) and to see the networks in which they were involved (or not).


We also reviewed all relevant documents concerning students attending California public institutions. Documents included the most recent UC AB 540 report (University of California, 2010) and a CSU AB 540 resource guide for postsecondary staff and faculty members (California State University, Long Beach, 2009). One of the more difficult challenges for studying this population is gaining an accurate understanding of what often seems to be the simplest points of departure for studying other populations—how many students exist, where they go to college, how many drop out, and the like.


DATA ANALYSIS


Throughout data analysis, the primary goal was to find connections in what individual students and institutional agents said about undocumented immigrant students. Data were coded according to themes that emerged from the primary and secondary interviews, group and individual observations, and document analysis. By comparing common themes, an image of the group’s college-going experience emerged. We also concentrated on the circumstances that shaped students’ college-going attitudes and actions. Appendix C provides a sample of coded interview data. The constant comparative method, which allows the researcher to collect and analyze data simultaneously, was employed for all data analysis (Boeije, 2002; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). After the collection of an initial set of data, we identified codes and themes that emerged. We then collected more data and repeated the process, coding data in relation to previously collected data. The goal was to reach theoretical saturation—the point at which new data fit into existing categories.


Ensuring trustworthiness of the study’s findings was addressed via member checks, peer debriefing, triangulation, and prolonged engagement throughout the data collection and analysis processes. We collected and transcribed all the data ourselves. We coded all the data to ensure consistency of the codes as well as flexibility when we modified codes to reflect new data, new themes, and responses from the member checks. We conducted member checks with the informants three times during the study. One interviewed institutional agent and five students reviewed two sample-coded transcripts for accuracy and consistency. We then met as a group to discuss any questions and inconsistencies and settle any disagreements. From this discussion, we again made changes to the coding scheme. The same institutional agent and three different students were later asked to review two sample-coded transcripts halfway during data analysis and provide individual feedback via e-mail. At the end of data analysis, we sent a summary of the findings to one institutional agent and five students for review and feedback.


Besides member checks, we also asked two academic peers who did not participate in the study for their feedback on findings throughout the study. These researchers had published articles on the same student population and were familiar with their challenges and realities. Finally, triangulation—the process of employing multiple methods, sources, and researchers—provided us with another layer of study trustworthiness over a 10-month period of prolonged engagement with study participants during the 2008–2009 academic year.


RESULTS


The process of welcoming undocumented immigrants into, preparing them for, and fully incorporating them into postsecondary education poses a difficult problem for institutions where students’ legal status is central to how they view themselves and to how others view them. Although most low-income students face issues pertaining to the accumulation of social capital in college, undocumented students face particular hurdles insofar as many normal avenues are foreclosed. As we shall discuss, two issues in particular—relationships and finance—are framed by the absence of available networks for social capital.


RELATIONSHIPS AND THE EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCE


A CSU freshman explained how her relationship with her high school college counselor was key to her deciding to attend college. She commented,


I got really close to one of my college counselors and he was the one who told me that I could push forward. He told me that it was going to be hard and he was with me for all four years. He told me what to do [to prepare for college].


A CSU senior told a similar story about her own high school college counselor. After explaining to her college counselor that she was undocumented in the beginning of 10th grade, he walked her through the college application process:


My college counselor put me into college prep and AP courses. He pushed me into activities and all of this other stuff. He told me to apply to scholarships since I was in my situation. That’s when he got me thinking about the reality of things. . . . My college counselor helped me figure out the plan for me to go to college.


In this student’s case, the relationship with her counselor did not end at high school graduation. She worked in the college center part time for three years until the counselor left the school site. He paid her cash out of his own wages for her work in the center. During that time, her counselor continued to work with her on locating funding for her college education and maximizing her academic opportunities. She credited her ability to attend a four-year institution and finish a bachelor’s degree in four years to his long-term involvement. Their close relationship provided both bonding and bridging social capital in that her counselor presented her with opportunities to raise money for her education both inside (bonding) and outside (bridging) her existing social network.


High school staff and faculty members not only academically and emotionally supported students’ college goals, but they also often personally helped fund their educations. A UC senior benefited from the financial support of her high school principal. She developed a close relationship with him during ninth grade. After gaining admission to several UC campuses during 12th grade, she decided not to attend college. Confused, her principal pushed her for a reason why she was not attending college. She explained her immigration status, and he immediately established a $2,000 scholarship fund for her to attend the local community college. Businesses and donors later contributed to the fund. As she noted four years later, “That was a really big deal because it showed me that there was an investment put into my education. Someone actually wants me to do this.” This administrator provided this student with bridging resources available outside her high school in the larger business community to assist with paying for school.


Other students also explained how teachers and counselors helped pay for college applications, registration fees, books, and even medical fees. A CSU sophomore received money from past teachers to pay for her annual eye exams and prescription lenses. She knew that without the corrective lenses, she would not have been able to continue her studies. The interviewed community college counselor who advised his campus’s undocumented student group explained that counselors and faculty often took up collections for unauthorized students’ medical and academic needs. He cited an example of a recent collection for a student’s emergency eye surgery. The high school college counselor who worked with unauthorized students commented that each year, he helped a few students with college application fees. “If they don’t have papers, they often cannot get fee waivers. Some of us teachers and counselors help when we can.”


The norm, however, is that when students reach college, their ability to find similar sorts of individuals is constrained by their legal status. The students just mentioned were able to build a relationship with a college counselor, teacher, or even principal, however, such interactions are less common in college, especially at four-year institutions.


“I never tell anyone I am undocumented. I don’t look Hispanic so no one ever thinks I am even an immigrant,” commented a first-year community college student.


“No one knows. . . . No one needs to know . . . because no one can help me or anything,” added a UC junior.


“Technically, the school knows . . . but I never tell my friends at school. This is not California . . . [and] I have to tell people all the time that I am American . . . born in California even though I am Mexican,” said a first-year student studying in the Midwest.


Students also do not have opportunities to easily create networks. This was particularly prevalent at the large public institutions where the majority of students attended. “The classes are so big. I am shy . . . my English is . . . still not good,” said a community college student originally from South Korea. She added, “At high school, I was part of the animation club. I helped at the library . . . [and] Key Club, too. It was easy to make friends. In college, I take bus back and forth. I am so tired.” In college, this student was unable to access similar sources of bonding capital through social involvement with peers that she had accessed while attending high school. A third-year UC student painted a different picture, but nonetheless still similar:


I [now] carpool . . . with my best friend so I spend a lot of time with her . . . I am a math major so my classes were really big. The classes [in my freshman and sophomore years] were real early. My commute was about three hours then. Bus and train. I never saw them in office hours. Those were on different days and late in the afternoon . . . I had to leave to get on the bus.


Another UC student echoed the same sentiments about getting to know faculty members at large institutions. “The bus takes forever. . . . It’s two hours [each way] on a good day. I sleep in the library between classes.” A first-year CSU engineering student described one of the professors he got to know:


He’s an engineering professor. I had never met an actual Hispanic that had a doctor’s degree. He’s the first immigrant, Hispanic professor. He was able to get his doctor’s degree. That was inspiring. He has that Hispanic picture persona . . . he has an accent. He looks ethnic but he has the high status.


This student identified with this professor, however, his contact with him was limited because of conflicting course and teaching schedules, respectively. Another community college student added, “I take literature classes. The professor[s] aren’t good. I just go and turn in the work. I miss class always . . . I don’t talk to them.”  


Some students, however, were able to form relationships. A premed UC student said, “It’s all because of the connections I have with this faculty member . . . that I even have a shot of being a competitive applicant for medical school. She has introduced me to a lot of people that help.” This type of bridging capital served this student well as she was seriously pursuing admission to medical school because she was confident her contacts would continue to help her finance her education. Such comments, however, were rare. More common were observations by a UC senior:


[My mom and I] were downtown one day. There was a man selling fruit. He was arrested and INS came and it was this huge scandal. I said to myself that I didn’t want that. I don’t want to live like that. Even though this man and I shared the same status, I just didn’t want to live like this. This is so unjust. This is a man just trying to make a living. I didn’t want to be treated like that . . . I was always careful about who I told.


This student shared her immigration status with only a couple of trusted institutional agents because she and her mother feared deportation. A community college student described her status as “scary.” She wondered aloud, “What’s going to happen to me when they arrest me one day?” Another community college student declined to be taped during the interview. “I am very careful. No tape.”


As with all students, undocumented students rely on information for their successful transition to postsecondary education. However, information specific to their needs is hard to come by in large part because of the lack of relationships they have relative to college-going and their immigration status. They are not eligible to apply for state and federal financial aid. In some cases, their college applications are cancelled because of their immigration status. Student and professional interviewees all expressed the need for relevant postsecondary admissions, financial, and student life information and programming.


A director of outreach at a private university worked with undocumented students for years at his current institution, UC, and CSU. He said, “Financial aid is a mess. There is nothing for these students. . . . They need really good counselors in high school to help them find money if they want to move past community college.” A student who recently transferred from a CSU campus 6 hours away to a CSU campus close to her parents explained her financial situation: “My father helped when I went away. That was for a semester. I worked in the mall . . . [but] still ran out of money. I just came back home. I am looking for a job now.” Another CSU student declared, “I am glad that we have the AB 540. It’s just mere crumbs from this society. It is the crumbs. . . . They just give us the crumbs.”  


Some students did not know about the in-state tuition break they qualified for through AB 540. Because of their lack of information, they either paid higher tuition or went to a lower cost institution. A UC senior who attended one of the highest performing public high schools in the region, for example, did not know about AB 540 until after high school, when her aunt heard about it on Spanish language radio. “I didn’t know anything about AB 540 until I was about to start community college. . . . If I had known, I would have applied to four-year schools.” Two sisters enrolled at a UC campus and a community college, respectively. Neither knew about AB 540, and each paid out-of-state fees for one term. Two high school friends who attended the same community college did not find out about AB 540 until a college tour guide mentioned it. One explained, “We were told to meet with a woman . . . who worked in admissions [about being undocumented].” Both students were disappointed to find out about it so late in their senior year; they would have considered other institutions if they had known about the benefits of AB 540.


All the educational professionals we interviewed were not surprised by the students’ lack of knowledge. The community college counselor explained,


There was this one student . . . a valedictorian from an area high school . . . who was sent down here by her [high school] counselor that I know. [The student] went to admissions and records and not to me. She came in May, before she graduated, and she was told that she was going to be an out-of-state student. No one asked her if she was an undocumented student.


A senior CSU administrator mentioned that training institutional staff and faculty on how to best advise and mentor undocumented students is a constant struggle. Knowing when to connect a student to someone outside the immediate campus community for help is difficult because students were likely not to trust individuals who were outside their social circle. She described the primary problems for unauthorized students:


The biggest challenges faced by undocumented students are that they are oblivious to the consequences. There is a general naïveté about the situation. . . . They think the money will be there. They don’t consider the other expenses. . . . When they get to me, it may be too late. I cannot make their absences go away . . . or the bad grades because of the absences. . . . I cannot change a parent’s deportation order.


A community college student explained that she “faked part of the process to get into college. . . . It’s all been trial and error.” She was prepared to go to college like any other first-generation, low-income student. However, when she found out she was undocumented during the 11th grade, she felt like she knew nothing about how to go to college. A recent CSU graduate described the college-going process for students like him: “It is a constant struggle to get the most current information on the laws and the scholarships and all that stuff that affects you [as an undocumented student].” This student was aware that he needed help keeping up to date but still had problems finding the right people on his campus to help him connect with resources. Acquiring useful, timely social capital remained a constant challenge throughout his undergraduate education.


Many students did not know of their legal status until they started to apply for college. As one might expect, students were not in a position to have to present their social security numbers or discuss the particulars of their immigration to the United States with parents and relatives. For many students who had lived in the United States for the majority of their lives, the distinction between “undocumented” and “documented” was nonexistent. Because many of the students were members of mixed-status families—siblings and/or parents were documented immigrants or U.S. citizens—they never questioned their own status. A UC senior who arrived before her first birthday explained what happened when she found out about her status:


It wasn’t until I went to apply for college and my counselor gave me the information for how to apply. I went home and asked my mom for the information. My mom sat me down and told me that I didn’t have these things that I was asking for. I just started to cry. I felt like I was given this new identity. At first I was angry. I was mean to my mom. I said things to my mom that I should not have said.


Students who immigrated when they were older often knew their status. They dealt with knowing that they were undocumented from a young age. An older community college student explained that he dropped out of high school like his other undocumented friends. “I had no hope so I left.” He later returned to night school and earned a GED before enrolling in community college. A community college student who emigrated from Armenia and a UC transfer student who emigrated from Central Asia struggled with staying focused on academics while in high school. Like the older community college student, they did not see the point of continuing with an education if they could not get a better job even though their parents held postsecondary degrees and encouraged education. Knowing their status early on was discouraging. During the interview, one student asked, “Do you think it would have been better not to know?”


Our point here has been that what is normal for many students—the development of relationships that provide support and information, as well as a reliance on institutional mechanisms designed to support first-generation and low-income students—is usually missing among the students we interviewed. Rather than having a support structure to which they could turn, the students had to rely on themselves, or no one at all. Unlike high school, where they might have found someone who supported them, these students often experienced college as a series of instrumental activities that was disconnected from a support network. The result is that they frequently lacked information about various aspects of their academic lives. They often did not turn to institutional agents or programs for support because they were fearful of the consequences or were systematically denied access.


FINANCE AND THE EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCE


The students and the educational professionals agreed that money is the most important factor in determining an undocumented student’s sustainability in the college setting. Paying for college without access to state and federal financial aid was a constant issue. The outreach director emphasized the role of money for undocumented college students. “It’s everything for them. Without a constant stream of money, these students cannot go to college.” The community college counselor echoed the same concerns about the unauthorized students who participate in his campus’s support group:


Unfortunately, some of them just drop out because they can’t do it all. They still have to pay out of pocket . . . books, fees, and living expenses. They can’t get any financial aid. We are lucky if we can provide them with a couple of hundred of dollars a year in scholarships. They do a good job of fundraising but there are just too many mouths to feed [and] not enough money to go around.


Although we do not disagree about the importance of money in the ability of undocumented students to attend college, the larger issue here pertains to the networks that students have foreclosed to them. For example, financial aid is critical for all low-income students. The difference between documented and undocumented students, however, is that those students who are documented have multiple networks that they can use to find out about how to pay for college—financial aid offices, admissions counselors, student development professionals, and the like. In addition, a host of scholarships are open for such students. The same cannot be said for those students who are undocumented.


The freshman at the Midwest liberal arts college recalled how she approached applying to college. She originally thought that she would start her college career at a local community college. However, her involvement in an intensive high school college preparation program prompted her to apply to private out-of-state institutions. With the help of her mentor, who had contacts with institutions that would overlook her immigration status, she secured two private scholarships that would pay all her academic fees and living expenses for four years. “This would have never happened if [my mentor] didn’t help me. He told me that there were some schools that would even pay for a student in my position,” she explained. “I wrote a letter to all of the private schools I applied to explaining my situation. I only did this because I trusted that [my mentor] knew what he was doing.” This example of bridging social capital was out of the ordinary given that the majority of undocumented students had no feasible way of financing a private school education. The connections she made through her mentor were the only reason she could afford such an expensive institution.


Although some scholarships are available specifically to students who are undocumented, or the scholarships pointedly do not ask for one’s residency status, the majority of students attending college paid on their own. An engineering student at a private university was an exception: “[My] degrees were paid by scholarships I found and my department found for me. My university is really expensive so that’s a lot of money.” Other students received scholarships from their high schools, but it did not cover the entire cost of college. The result was that students needed to finance their education. Again, all poor students have financial concerns. Although we may debate the wisdom of students’ incurring debt to finance their college education, loans are largely impossible for undocumented students. Similarly, all poor students are likely to have college work-study available to them on their campuses. These jobs are specifically aimed at poor students, and a student simply needs to fill out forms to gain one. Such is not the case for students unable to get themselves into the financial aid system.


Consequently, many of our study participants found jobs in their local communities, which also was no easy task. Finding employers that would hire undocumented immigrants was critical and a large part of staying in the immediate area for school. “I can’t work on campus. I work for a Korean woman who pays cash . . . I work where the tourists go. . . . No one notices my accent,” said a community college freshman from South Korea. A CSU junior explained,


I had a job for years cleaning a restaurant . . . I was cleaning the restaurant in the morning. . . . [With the new job] I now start work 3:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. or 8:00 a.m., six days a week. My sister and I work together cleaning. Now we get more than minimum wage. [Before] I was getting about $200 a week . . . I had to pay for the car, food, car insurance, cell phone, school. I contribute to the rent like everyone else. I would save about $25 a week. It wasn’t that much. Now I can save more money. My sister can save, too. She goes to school here, too.


A few of the other students made the same point. A community college student, for example, said, “My friend’s a DJ. I help him if he needs [help]. It’s always late at night. Not good for school, but it’s money.” Employment leads through preexisting relationships and networks repeatedly proved critical to students being able to raise money for school.


Another student had to drop out of CSU after his first term because of money. “I was really upset. I got a 4.0 GPA that term.” The next term he enrolled in the local community college, where he was pursuing his original academic major and a certificate in carpentry so he could find a better paying job in construction. “I can make pretty good money with carpentry. [Contractors] always look for carpenters.” A CSU sophomore worked downtown because immigrant-owned businesses there were more likely to hire someone with fake papers. “They know that my papers are not real. But I am cheap for them.” She paid for about half of her CSU fees with her earnings. A CSU senior landed an internship in a marketing department at an international media company the previous year. “It’s really hard to get into that without the documents.” The money he earned helped pay his CSU tuition. All these students relied on employment opportunities that did not scrutinize their immigration status to fund their college education. Although their resourcefulness enabled them to attend college, unlike most other students, they had very few opportunities to develop networks.


DISCUSSION


Throughout the study, we were guided by three primary research questions: (1) How do the formal educational experiences of unauthorized college students affect their postsecondary education goals? (2) How do undocumented students attend college on a daily basis? (3) What role does social, political, and economic support play in unauthorized students’ success in college? Our purpose has been twofold. First, we aimed to shed light on the challenges that undocumented students face, and we employed the framework of social capital to analyze those struggles. We pointed out that unlike even their low-income counterparts, these students are particularly unnetworked. We know from previous research that even students who are part time or nonresidential are more likely to be retained if they feel some sort of relationship to the campuses they attend. From the interviews presented here, however, undocumented students appear to have created very few relationships. On the one hand, students hesitate to reveal something about themselves that might get them in trouble. On the other, very few offices on campus are available to meet the needs of these students.  


As seen in research we have done on homeless youth (Tierney, Gupton, & Hallett, 2008), undocumented students face problems similar to all low-income students—lack of academic preparation, lack of “college knowledge,” and the like—but their experiences are also unique because of their immigration status. One’s legal status impacts an individual’s ability to attach to groups that enhance his or her social capital and in turn presumably increase the potential for remaining in, and graduating from, college. If network development is key for being engaged in education, the interviews present troubling data. The conclusion is not simply that undocumented students appear unnetworked, but that they have few opportunities to establish networks because of their legal status and exclusion from institutional support resources designed for students in their situation.  


Such an observation is of particular concern with regard to these students’ ability to pay for college. Again, gaining access to financial aid to pay for college is an issue for all students. But whereas legal students have particular networks open to them, and our challenge is to make these students aware of what networks exist and how to tap into them, such is not the case for undocumented youth. Insofar as virtually all traditional financial aid and college access networks are foreclosed to them, the work turns not on providing information about which networks to tap into, but how to obtain funds to pay for college from a largely underground economy.


Accordingly, efforts need to be placed on how to build and strengthen networks and create social bonds so that low-income unauthorized individuals develop the capacity to address their social conditions. Such a point is particularly germane with regard to undocumented youth. As we have demonstrated, not only are they unnetworked with regard to college access, but they also fear being involved in some networks because of their immigration status. In this light, social organizations such as schools, colleges, and universities have a crucial role to play in the facilitation of networks and the acquisition of social capital so that collective, instead of individual, action is possible. Rather than the motto being “Yes I can,” the perspective advanced here sees the motto being “Yes we can.”


Our second purpose was to suggest a research agenda based on this provisional work. One methodological observation is the difficulty we faced in simply finding a suitable sample to interview. Undocumented students, as we discussed, are largely without a public face. In many respects, they are much easier to find and speak with in high schools because the government has decreed that they have a right to go to school. The same is not the case in college, and consequently, developing a coherent sample was a struggle. Nevertheless, we know on some campuses, there are greater numbers of undocumented students than on other campuses. Cal State Los Angeles, for example, is likely to have more undocumented students than Cal State Stanislaus in large part because undocumented students tend to go to college where they live. Thus, one suggestion is to attempt an ethnography or case study of a campus with a significant number of undocumented students. Our work provided the thinnest of descriptions of the daily challenges these students face; a more nuanced portrait might be derived from a long-term study on one campus that could point out how students function from day to day.


A second suggestion has to do with identity development. The portrait we have painted is of students who are largely independent of, and uninvolved with, social networks on their campuses. Although we certainly encourage greater engagement in college for all students, one project that might be attempted is a study of resiliency and undocumented youth. Many of these students are in college in spite of the system, rather than because of it. They survive and prosper in college independent of typical social support structures. Thus, a second avenue might be to utilize the work on identity formation and resilience to better understand how such students succeed in college. The point is certainly not to romanticize undocumented students, but we also need to resist a framework based on a culture of poverty, and instead consider individual and structural ways to understand the struggles that such students face and how to overcome them.


Notes


1. The terms undocumented and unauthorized are used interchangeably.

2. California AB 540 grants certain students in-state academic fees at California’s public postsecondary institutions based on long-term residency and high school completion.


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APPENDIX


Appendix A: Student Interview Protocol


Educational Experiences:

1.

Tell me about your educational experiences since you came to the United States.

2.

In what ways do your educational experiences in the U.S. differ from those you had in your country?

3.

In what ways has being undocumented impacted your experiences in school since you came to the U.S.? In your opinion, are your experiences different from those experienced by American-born or documented immigrant students?

4.

Tell me about how your individual educational experiences are the same as or different from those of other undocumented students.

College-Going:

5.

What experiences made you begin thinking about going to college?

6.

How did you prepare as an undocumented student to go to college?

7.

How did you apply to college? Community college or four-year college first?

8.

Tell me about how you finance college. Outside scholarships? In-state fees? Family support? Employment?

9.

Tell me about how college is going for you. Challenges? Misconceptions? Surprises?

10.

How has being undocumented influenced decisions you have made in relation to your higher education? (e.g., major choices, location of school, etc.)

Postgraduation:

11.

What are you thinking about doing after graduation in terms of employment, further academic study, etc.?

12.

At this point, how does being undocumented affect your lifetime career goals?

Policy Awareness:

13.

What awareness do you have about educational policies impacting undocumented students in higher education?

14.

Are you familiar with California Assembly Bill 540 (AB 540)? If so, how did you find out about it, and what do you know?

15.

Are you aware of federal legislation—especially the DREAM Act—that would have provided students like you with a direct route to legalize your immigration status? If so, where did you hear about it, and what do you know?

16.

In what ways have policies like AB 540 and the DREAM Act changed the way you think about going to college? Has it made going to college easier or harder? Explain.


Appendix B: Educational Professional Interview Protocol


1.

Tell me about your involvement with undocumented college and university students.

2.

What percentage of the students you work with are undocumented? In your experience, what happens to these students?

3.

In what ways, if any, do you work differently with undocumented students?

4.

How aware do you believe undocumented students are about the limitations of their immigration status? (e.g., especially in terms of access to financial aid and employment opportunities)

5.

What are your biggest challenges with regard to counseling and working with undocumented students?

6.

Tell me about what you know about policies limiting or expanding undocumented students’ access to higher education (e.g., AB 540 and DREAM Act).

7.

In your experience, what are the biggest challenges faced by undocumented college-goers?

8.

In your opinion, what do you think will happen to most of the undocumented students you work with once they leave college?

 

Appendix C: Sample Data Coding Examples


Codes are as follows: Accessibility = A; Identity = I (American = Ia; immigrant = Ii; student = Is; undocumented = Iu); Money = M (donors = Md; employment = Me; family = Mf; scholarships = Ms); Preparation = P (academic = Pa; financial = Pf; planning = Pp); Support = S (family/friends = Sf; outsiders = So; staff = Ss; teachers = St)

Student Interview Example

Interviewer: Tell me about your educational experiences since you came to the U.S.

Female CSU Student: I came when I was 8 months. I started in Head Start in prekindergarten. I attended the same elementary school. School was something fun. I went to one middle high school and then two high schools. (Pa) I lived in the same house since I was young. I spoke a little English when I went to kindergarten. I spoke Spanish mostly but I had cousins who spoke to me in English. I had English-only education with a bilingual classroom aide. I was completely comfortable in English by third grade. I went to one high school for 9th and 10th grade. I then went to another high school for 11th and 12th grade. (Pa) I was moved there when the school opened. The third grade, I started a music program. If we had good grades, the teacher nominated me to be in the music program. In fourth grade, I was placed in honors. When it came to English in that year, I would take English with the fifth graders. I was in honors in middle school. I took AP classes in the 9th and 10th grade at my first high school. (Pa) There were no AP classes offered at my second high school. (Pa) For the most part, I enjoyed my education. I had a lot of teachers . . . for elementary, I experienced the American culture because the majority of my teachers were . . . how do you say . . . were White. (I) The majority of my teachers were White. I only had my first- and third-grade teachers as White. My fifth-grade teacher was Black. My middle school, I saw both worlds. I saw what it means to be Latino, Chicano . . . I never felt weird until I was in the eighth grade. (I) In that grade, I was offered a $5000 scholarship for college. The scholarship was through the peer mediation program at my school at the time. I didn’t have a SSN so I couldn’t get the scholarship. (I, Mf, Pf)




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 12, 2011, p. 2739-2776
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16204, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 11:32:12 AM

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About the Author
  • Lisa Garcia
    University of Southern California
    LISA D. GARCIA is a postdoctoral research associate in the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis (CHEPA) at the University of Southern California (USC). Her dissertation chronicled the experiences of undocumented immigrant students attending four-year institutions in California. She continues to study issues of equity, access, and diversity pertaining to first-generation college students. She has recently published articles on early notification remediation programs as well as summer bridge programs.
  • William Tierney
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    WILLIAM G. TIERNEY is University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education and Director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California. Dr. Tierney is committed to informing policies and practices related to educational equity. He is currently involved in a project to develop, evaluate, and disseminate a highly interactive, entertaining Web-enhanced computer game for low-income youth that will boost high school students’ college aspirations and equip players with knowledge about preparing for and succeeding in college. His most recent publications include: The Impact of Culture on Organizational Decision-Making and Writing on the Margins from the Center: Homeless Youth + Politics at the Borders.
 
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