Column

Counting DACA students

It is estimated that half of the people eligible for DACA are enrolled in high school or college

Photo of Jill Barshay

Proof Points

DACA supporters protest the Trump administration’s termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in Los Angeles on September 5, 2017. The DACA program protected about 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

How many students are affected by President Trump’s decision to end the program that shields young, undocumented immigrants, ages 15 and up, from deportation?

Counting students who have received approval for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) isn’t easy. The reason is that schools, both high schools and colleges, generally don’t ask students if they have DACA status. So the data aren’t collected. 

Some researchers and experts have come up with estimates, however. Some make guesses based on census data, calculating how many undocumented children arrived before 2007 and have lived in the United States continuously since. Others use proxies, such as students who don’t provide social security numbers.

Last month the Migration Policy Institute released figures based on 2014 census data. It estimates that 365,000 high school students across the United States were eligible for DACA status, and that another 241,000 of DACA-eligible students were enrolled in college. Together, that’s roughly half, or 51 percent, of the DACA-eligible population of nearly 1.2 million.

Even three years ago, 57,000 DACA-eligible people had already earned a four-year bachelor’s degree, according to the same Migration Policy Institute report. That’s 5 percent of a low-income population, most of whom were the first in their families to go to college. (For comparison, 18 percent of the general U.S. population under age 33 had a bachelor’s degree in 2014.)

A much larger number of DACA-eligible people, over 130,000, had completed some college, but were no longer enrolled. Some of those, roughly 25,000 young adults, had earned two-year associate’s degrees, the Migration Policy Institute estimates.

Not all DACA-eligible people have obtained the status. Many never apply for it, and remain undocumented. Others are in the middle of the application process. Of the 1.2 million eligible people, roughly 800,000 actually have DACA status, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. How many of those people are students takes some additional guesswork.

In a letter to Congress dated September 6, 2017, a group of 64 advocacy organizations estimated that a fifth of the 800,000 DACA recipients (or 160,000 if you do the math) are currently enrolled in college.

In California, home to 30 percent of the nation’s DACA population, college administrators have done some more counting. Maria Blanco works directly with undocumented students at nine of the University of California’s campuses, as director of immigrant legal services. She helps students process DACA applications and renewals.

Blanco estimated that 4,000 undocumented students are enrolled in one of the University of California campuses, pursuing four-year degrees. She said another 10,000 undocumented students are in the California State University system, also pursuing four-year degrees. (A Cal State spokeswoman put the estimate at 8,000 but emphasized the system does not track DACA status.*) The majority — 60,000 undocumented students — are at one of California’s 114 community colleges. Of that total of 74,000 undocumented students, Blanco said 70 to 80 percent have DACA.

“By the time you’re in college, you’re informed, and hoping to work in a profession, and have a better job later,” Blanco said. “All of that means that this is a group of people that takes advantage of DACA and the ability to work.”  The undocumented college students who don’t have DACA are generally not eligible for it.

Blanco said the DACA students within the competitive University of California system are largely keeping up with their coursework and graduating. She’s seen many students pursuing science degrees who are working in laboratories part time, networking and getting job experience.

“They’re doing really well, especially since Cal Grants became available to them,” after 2011, Blanco said. “They would sometimes run out of money and drop out. Since they’ve been able to work in addition to [receiving] Cal Grants, they tend to stay in and graduate.”

Some other states, such as Wisconsin, do not permit DACA students to receive state aid.

One of the peculiarities of the DACA program is that recipients are not allowed to travel outside the United States. Blanco had previously secured travel exemptions for DACA students at the University of California. A map in her office has pins around the world, from Vietnam to Sweden, displaying where her student clients have studied or interned.

She said that 35 majors in the California State system actually require students to study abroad. Most are in language or history fields. With Trump’s order last week, exemptions to the travel ban will no longer be granted, Blanco said. For these students, their major requirements — and graduation — are now in jeopardy.

*Clarification: An earlier version of this column did not have Cal State’s estimate.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay, a contributing editor, writes a weekly column, Education By The Numbers, about education data and research. She taught algebra to ninth graders for… See Archive

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