Community College Leaders Discuss Supports for DACA Students

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Reporter

Community colleges have a large role to play in helping students in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program succeed in higher education and can continue to influence the culture in their college systems both in states that have traditionally supported this population of students, as well as in those that have not. That was the message left by a group of community college leaders who gathered Tuesday to discuss steps being taken at their schools to assist DACA students.

The discussion, hosted online by UndocuScholars, the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) Presidential Commission on Undocumented Immigrants, and the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education, centered around a new research brief by Susana Munoz, an assistant professor of higher education at Colorado State University (CSU). In the brief, Munoz discussed a research project she is engaged in that aims to discover what effect the political attitude around immigration has had on DACA students at community colleges.

“Undocumented and DACA students often choose community colleges because of its affordability and closeness to their home community, but how undocumented students are received by their institutions is dependent on institutions’ admissions policies, high school preparation, communication about resources, institutional commitment, and financial aid,” she wrote. “Given these parameters, an imperative question to ask is: Are community colleges meeting the needs of undocumented students in our current sociopolitical environment?”

Among her findings was that DACA students are experiencing “heightened mental stress” that was affecting their performance in class, and that visible displays by institutions in support of DACA students “made students feel validated and gave them a sense of belonging.”

Reyna Anaya, the dean of students at the Community College of Aurora in Colorado, said that at her institution, “students of color are constantly at the forefront of [the] conversation” due to the state’s large immigrant population. She argued that the higher education community needs to “destigmatize realities of what community colleges do and what they are all about” in order to improve access to a postsecondary education for DACA students.

On the other hand, Erin Howard, the Latino outreach director and global learning project leader at the Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Kentucky, said her institution often finds itself at a crossroads between supporting DACA students and answering to the local community, which is comprised of a conservative and predominantly white population. Howard said that in Kentucky, legislation is constantly being proposed that attacks in-state tuition policies for DACA students. 

“We are constantly having to have conversations even with educators and community-based practitioners about supporting undocumented students,” she said.

While Kentucky established a policy to allow DACA students who graduated from Kentucky high schools to receive in-state tuition 15 years ago, it has taken almost a decade for many institutions in the state to adopt it, Howard said. Additionally, a state scholarship granted to students with high SAT scores has yet to be expanded to DACA students. Howard said her colleagues need to be “very strategic” about choosing their battles when advocating for DACA students.

Darsella Vigil, a Ph.D. student at the University of Denver, said that even when Colorado first adopted its policy five years ago to allow DACA students to pay in-state prices, “there was a major disconnect between policy and implementation.” Financial advisors at many institutions were unaware of this change, and undocumented students continued to pay for courses out-of-pocket, she said. She argued that as new state policies to support students are put in place there must be efforts to promote them at the institutional level.

To help DACA students, Vigil suggested that institutions look into current policies that exclude undocumented students yet could help them afford an education, such as scholarships for low-income and first-generation students that they would otherwise qualify for if not for a requirement to prove permanent residency in the state.

Dion Duran, community outreach and enrollment coordinator at Colorado’s Front Range Community College, said that there are small, procedural changes institutions can make to help undocumented students feel more at home. For example, he said that just two years ago when he would go out to high schools to recruit students, DACA students were required to fill out paper applications while other student could apply online for procedure purposes, making them feel singled out. The policy was soon changed.

In addition, Duran emphasized the importance of providing materials for students in multiple languages, as that can be an overlooked barrier to success. During the discussion Howard added that the diversity of the staff can also be helpful in making DACA students feel welcome.  She said among her staff are recipients of DACA, refugees, and those who are multilingual.

Brian Mitra, the dean of student affairs at Kingsborough Community College, which is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, said that while he is seeing “a lot more perceived support for undocumented and DACA students” among the faculty and staff at his school, he has at the same time been experiencing the challenge of ensuring that they are truly listening to students’ needs. He emphasized the need for more training with institutional staff to better understand DACA students’ unique challenges, even in states that have been outspoken about their support for these students.  

While institutions can make procedural changes on campus and advocate for new policies to help DACA students, the panelists agreed that a strong message of support for this population of students from leaders of the institution, such as college presidents, goes a long way in influencing campus and community culture, which Munoz supported in her brief as well.

“If community colleges are deemed the ‘educational equalizers’ by providing access, equity, and institutional responsiveness to the needs of their communities, they should be activist organizations that exhibit courageous leadership to shape a socially just society,” she wrote.


Publication Date: 10/31/2018

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