An education deferred

by Andrea Gordillo • November 13, 2013

Education is access. Education is freedom. Every year, we deny thousands of students the opportunity to succeed when we deny them access to education.

According to the College Board and the National Conference of State Legislatures, 65,000 undocumented students graduate high school every year, and only 7.5 percent go on to higher education. This ratio is so low because only 16 states extend in-state tuition rates to students who are undocumented, and a mere three states allow them to receive financial aid. Alternatively, three states specifically prohibit students who are undocumented to receive state financial aid, while two, Alabama and South Carolina, prohibit students who are undocumented from enrolling in any public post-secondary institution at all. All other states—Massachusetts included—do not have any specific legislation dictating the eligibility of students who are undocumented to receive state financial aid. Sixty percent of children who are undocumented live below the poverty line. It is nearly impossible for families to pay the full rate of tuition when they cannot apply for a work permit or even a drivers’ license.

I remember the moment it sunk in that I was undocumented. I was 14 when my parents explained to me that I would be ineligible to apply for financial aid if I wanted to go to college. Despite graduating high school in the top three percent of my class and with the highest honors, college was never an option until the summer before my senior year of high school, when we were granted residency. College was unaffordable for my family after spending tens of thousands of dollars on applications and lawyer’s fees.

Although I am now a semester away from graduating college, there are countless others experiencing the same issue who will never have access to the opportunities I’ve been given—opportunities most of us never think twice about. Many of these “others” have known no other home but the U.S., and are eager to give back. They have grown up with us—they are our neighbors, our sisters, our brothers, and our friends. They are suffering because they are stuck in political limbo, unwilling to go back to a faraway land that is not theirs but unable to make a life in the one they call “home.”

The U.S. has little to lose and everything to gain by encouraging equal education access. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, if passed, would essentially provide a pathway to legal status for eligible young people who complete high school, or some college, or military service, and would inject an estimated $329 billion and 1.4 million jobs into the American economy over the next two decades.  

Immigration reform is a huge puzzle that the leaders of this country have not yet figured out how to solve. We at Emerson College can do our part to fight for justice by acknowledging our role in our societal fabric, and where our power lays in these national debates. The work we do at Emerson with communication and the arts has the power to influence our cultural identity—imagine the impact we can have if we make a conscious effort to include voices and perspectives that never have the opportunity to be heard. It is our moral imperative to do so if we intend to live up to the standard of “inclusive excellence” we set for ourselves. “Inclusive excellence” is a term President Pelton uses in his vision for the college and in his inaugural address—it is the main goal for the new Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and one of the main goals for the college to strive for.

Other schools, like Notre Dame and Loyola, have publicly announced that they will consider undocumented applicants the same as domestic ones. Emerson College, as a private institution not governed by state laws on financial aid, has the power to enact policies that actively recruit, admit, financially support, and retain students who are undocumented. We can and should urge our administration to take action to make Emerson a “DREAM school,” one that is undocumented student-friendly. The administration is eager to do the right thing, but we need loud voices to show that the student is equally eager.

My educational career worked out, but if it hadn’t been for sheer luck, I would have been one of the 93 percent of undocumented studentswho never get a chance to pursue their education. Those 93 percent are still at a dead end. We cannot expect to move forward as a country or a society as long as anyone who calls the U.S. “home” is denied an education.