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By Olivia Sanchez

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 have needed 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.  

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 her peers were getting for free because, she said, “I have more important things to pay for.” 

Last month, my colleague 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 courses. Research has shown that the students who take dual-enrollment classes in high school are more likely to enroll in college and to graduate than their peers of similar backgrounds. For the students who can get the credits 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.  

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 all 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 offer undocumented students 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).  

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.  

Support for this newsletter comes from:

Free research and resources to support student success from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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