The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Alexa Maqueo Toledo was a junior in high school in Tennessee when she enrolled in Spanish 4, the first course she’d take that offered students the chance to earn both high school and college credit at the same time. 

She remembers hearing that the college credit was free, and it seemed like a great opportunity to knock some college credits out of the way early. Though that was the case for most of her classmates, Maqueo Toledo quickly learned it was not the case for her. She was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States at age two with her mother. They came on a visa and stayed in the U.S. even after it expired. In Tennessee, undocumented students are not eligible for in-state tuition or state financial aid, which she would need for dual-credit classes.

“My teacher kind of pulled me aside and was like, ‘Hey, you need to go to your guidance counselor, there’s a little bit of complications with signing you up for this class,’” said Maqueo Toledo, who is now a college access fellow at the Education Trust in Tennessee. 

Everything she’d heard about the dual-credit class was technically true, it just didn’t apply to her.  A state grant made the college credits free for most students, but U.S. citizenship was required. Without the grant, if she wanted to earn the college credits for the course she was already taking, she’d have to pay the community college’s out-of-state tuition rate. 

An estimated 20 percent of community college students are actually high schoolers getting both high school and college credit for the courses they are taking. Students who take dual enrollment classes in high school are more likely to finish college.

Today, that rate is $726 per credit, compared to $176 per credit for students who qualify for in-state tuition (though, thanks to the state grant, in-state high school students pay nothing for dual enrollment credits). Maqueo Toledo had been working at fast food restaurants ever since being approved for a work permit, but she was also paying half the bills at home. She couldn’t afford to pay for the college credits that her peers were getting for free because, she said, “I have more important things to pay for.”

Last month, Hechinger’s Jill Barshay reported that an estimated 20 percent of community college students are actually high schoolers who are getting both high school and college credit for the courses they are taking. Research has shown that the students who take dual enrollment classes in high school are more likely to enroll in college and graduate than their peers of similar backgrounds. For the students who can get the credit easily and for little money, it seems like a great set-up. 

But it excludes thousands of undocumented students. They can face a variety of barriers, like the cost-prohibitive dual-enrollment credits in Tennessee, depending on the state they live in. 

Related: STUDENT VOICE: DACA recipients like this DREAMer ask for full participation in American life

According to research by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a nonprofit group of university and college leaders that supports immigrant, refugee and international students, state policies vary drastically. Among them:

  • Three states bar undocumented students from attending some or all public institutions of higher education. 
  • Six states block undocumented students from accessing in-state tuition.

Five states provide in-state tuition only to recipients of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.  

  • Four states provide undocumented students with in-state tuition at some, but not all, colleges.
  • 24 states (and the District of Columbia) allow undocumented students to access in-state tuition, and 18 of those states also allow undocumented students to access state financial aid.
  • Eight states have no known policies related to undocumented students and higher education funding. 

“Undocumented students are shut out of these opportunities, and it’s really alarming,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, executive director of The Education Trust in Tennessee. “The fact is, these are students whose families are paying taxes. And these are public institutions that they should benefit from attending.”

Exorbitant out-of-state tuition is one of several barriers undocumented students can encounter when they’re trying to access dual credit courses. Some states require students to have attended a local high school for a certain number of years, making undocumented students who have come to the U. S. recently ineligible. In California, for example, students can only access in-state tuition if they have completed at least three years of school in California (it can be either high school, a combination of middle and high school, community college or adult school).

“There are many jobs in healthcare, in business, teaching, where we’re seeing massive shortages, and we need highly educated, highly skilled people to fill those jobs. And we’re creating these artificial barriers that are preventing those students from accessing those jobs and helping fill those roles.”

Sonny Metoki, higher education analyst, The Education Trust in Tennessee

Maqueo Toledo is one of about 19,000 undocumented immigrants in Tennessee between the ages of 16 and 24, according to an analysis of 2015 to 2019 U.S. Census data by the Migration Policy Institute. The Institute estimates that there are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, including about 352,000 between 13 and 17 years old and 1.4 million between the ages of 18 and 24. About 16 percent of undocumented people above the age of 25 in Tennessee have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 18 percent of undocumented people nationally and 37 percent of the general population. 

Sonny Metoki, higher education analyst from the Education Trust in Tennessee, said that dual enrollment courses create a pathway toward college. Without access to it, he said, “it really does discourage a lot of students from pursuing education after high school.”

And if they do end up in college, often by combining a patchwork quilt of private scholarships, they are starting out even further behind many of their U.S. citizen peers.

Related: Undocumented students turn to each other for support post graduation

Undocumented students can even struggle to access dual-credit courses in states that don’t have an explicit residency requirement for in-state tuition, said Miriam Feldblum, executive director and co-founder of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. There may be a requirement to have attended a school in the state for a certain number of years, as in California. About 2.7 million undocumented people, or 25 percent of all those in the U.S., live in California.

Others may be able to take dual-credit classes, only to find out that the post-high school portion of a trade program they were studying has a work-authorization requirement, or that they are ineligible for licensure in that field because of their immigration status. 

Only five states allow undocumented students to obtain a license to any profession as long as they meet all the other requirements, according to the Higher Education Immigration Portal run by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. But most states limit the professions that undocumented people can get licenses for; limit licensure to people with work authorization permits; block undocumented people from most professions that require licensure, or have no state policy on the professional licensure of undocumented people. 

“Undocumented students are shut out of these opportunities, and it’s really alarming. These are students whose families are paying taxes. And these are public institutions that they should benefit from attending.” 

Gini Pupo-Walker, executive director, The Education Trust in Tennessee

Undocumented students with access to hands-on career and technical education programs in high school need to know if they will be legally allowed to practice the profession they are training for. Feldblum said that these programs are typically designed so that students can move seamlessly from the high school portion of the training to a post-secondary portion, but the post-secondary portion can have work-authorization requirements that exclude undocumented students. So, they may be unable to get to the point of applying for a license because they can’t complete the training. 

“There are many jobs and sectors in healthcare, in business, teaching, where we’re seeing massive shortages, and we just need highly educated, highly skilled people to fill those jobs,” Metoki said. “And we’re creating these artificial barriers that are preventing those students from accessing those jobs and helping fill those roles. I think we’re hurting ourselves to a certain extent.”

The workforce policy and financial-aid access issues are among many challenges that undocumented students face, said Felecia Russell, director of the Higher Ed Immigration Portal at the Presidents’ Alliance for Higher Education and Immigration and founder of the online storytelling platform Embracing Undocumented. But she said these students face challenges within their institutions, too. Her doctoral research focused on the experiences of Black undocumented college students, who make up about 14 percent of all undocumented students, compared to 27 percent who are Asian American or Pacific Islander and about 48 percent who are Hispanic.

Related: STUDENT VOICE: We need dream resource centers on college campuses

Making sure undocumented students have the support they need to get to and through college is what Maqueo Toledo wants to spend her career doing.

She was lucky to have a guidance counselor she trusted to disclose her immigration status to, who could help her navigate the tricky system. In her first year after graduation, she took that role for other undocumented students, as a college and career access coach at a high school in Knox County.

“I see peers of mine and friends who started school with me and didn’t have the chance to finish or didn’t finish in my class because they had to take time off to save money, or life happens, because they don’t have the support of our citizen peers,” Maqueo Toledo said. “I want to be working at a university helping first-generation immigrant students, whether they’re undocumented themselves or they come from undocumented families, finish higher education.”

Maqueo Toledo took two classes in high school that she could have earned college credit for, classes that many of her peers did get credit for and didn’t have to retake in college. 

Advocates say that this problem could be greatly reduced if undocumented students were allowed to pay the in-state tuition price for the dual credit classes. Even if they weren’t eligible for the Tennessee state grant that makes these credits free for U.S. citizens, they would be paying the much more accessible price of $176 per credit, instead of $726 per credit. It would shrink what Metoki called a “tremendous block” for students to get the college credits. 

This story about dual enrollment courses was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

1 Letter

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. Olivia Sanchez correctly points out that in Tennessee undocumented high-school students who want to get college credit for dual-enrollment courses need to pay out-of-state tuition at $726 per credit, while college credit is free for US citizens. She calls the out-of-state tuition “cost-prohibitive”.

    Presenting only the per-credit cost may lead readers to seriously underestimate the costs per course. While $700 might be cost-prohibitive for many students, the actual cost for Tennessee community-college credit for the equivalent of a standard 1-year high-school course is much more: High-school Spanish 4 would correspond to two one-term community-college courses at 3 credits each:
    $726 / credit x 3 credits / term x 2 terms = $4356 / course

    In-state tuition is what Olivia Sanchez calls “ the much more accessible price of $176 per credit”, but even that works out to a substantial cost to get college credit for a standard high-school course:
    $176 / credit x 3 credits / term x 2 terms = $1056 / course

    Now admittedly your readers are higher-ed professionals, and if they think it through they could do the same calculation that I just did. But readers will naturally assume that the numbers given in the article are the numbers that are relevant. I suggest a minor edit to insert the per-course cost next to the given per-credit cost.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *