In his first few weeks as president, Joe Biden has made some promising changes for immigration reform. Biden overturned several of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, including undoing Trump’s “Muslim ban,” which blocked citizens from 12 predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, and stopping the funding of the southern border wall’s construction.
These policy changes indicate that Biden may follow through with other campaign promises, like significantly raising the refugee ceiling number.
Under Trump’s administration, the refugee ceiling number in fiscal year 2020 was 18,000, and Trump proposed that it be lowered to 15,000 in fiscal year 2021 — the lowest number since the establishment of the program in 1980. Of the 18,000 refugees who can legally resettle in the United States, only 11,814 refugees were actually resettled in fiscal year 2020. Biden has proposed, but not yet taken action, to raise the refugee ceiling number to 125,000 and establish a minimum admissions quota of 95,000 per fiscal year.
Although these changes are promising, the results will not be as immediate as passing these new policies. Hopefully, in addition to more accommodating immigration laws, Biden will also consider improving college access among undocumented students in the United States.
An undocumented student is someone who does not have citizenship, someone is not a permanent legal resident (or a green card holder), or someone with a temporary student visa. This means DACA students, who are temporarily protected from deportation, refugees who are in the process of legalizing their permanent residency status, people who entered the US without documentation, people who stayed past their visas expiration, people without a social security number, and many more are all considered undocumented. Approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year, and less than 50 percent of those who graduate high school are in or have attended college. Even fewer successfully graduate.
However, the primary obstacle in obtaining a degree is not a federal law prohibiting undocumented students from attending US institutions or acceptance to universities; it is federal laws declaring them ineligible for financial aid.
The median annual family income of undocumented families in the United States is less than $36,000. According to a survey of undocumented students at universities in California, 96 percent of students reported that they worried about not having enough money, and 59 percent struggled with food insecurity.
In addition to ineligibility for federal aid, policies regarding tuition and aid from specific institutions are unclear in many states. Only 20 states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Oklahoma and Rhode Island — offer in-state tuition to undocumented students or have state university systems offering state financial assistance. Six states — Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri and South Carolina — have state-wide policies prohibiting undocumented students from enrolling in public colleges.
The remaining states, including Pennsylvania, do not have any state-wide legislations or systems regarding higher education accessibility for undocumented students. This means that, in those states, each institution creates their own policies, which leads to undocumented students often being charged out-of-state, or even steeper international rates, even if they can prove they have been long-time residents. Being charged out-of-state tuition, not to mention international fees, is the determinant for many undocumented students in terms of the ability to go to college.
For private institutions, like Drexel University, this is different. Even if Pennsylvania had established state-wide policies, private universities would make their own determinations concerning undocumented students, and most private universities in the United States consider undocumented students as international students, with various reasonings behind the decision.
The reason undocumented students at Drexel may be misconstrued by the public as international students is because, when reporting university numbers to state, federal or other organizations, the student population is split into two categories: U.S. citizens (which include permanent legal residents) and non-U.S. citizens (which include international and undocumented students).
At Drexel University specifically, any international and undocumented students are offered support from the International Scholars Student Services — not because they are considered international students, but because ISSS offers students support in obtaining student visas. For international students, a visa is necessary, but for DACA and other undocumented students, the choice is theirs.
The application process for undocumented students is generally the same as any other (excluding the FAFSA and any other federal aid applications) at Drexel University and across the U.S.
Drexel’s application process requires all students fill out the Common Application or the Coalition application, the CSS profile and the FAFSA if eligible. When going through the admissions process, a student’s status does not influence an admission decision.
“Drexel is committed to access for students regardless of their status,” said Evelyn Thimba, Senior Vice President of Undergraduate Admissions and Enrollment Manager at Drexel University. Because applications are submitted through the Common App and the Coalition app, students are required to answer a question concerning citizenship. Students should be honest about the legality of their status, but undocumented students can self-identify as “US Nationals” or “Other.”
Application reviewers go through bias training to ensure that a student’s citizenship status is not part of the review board’s criteria. The only time a student’s status is taken into consideration is during ISSS’s initial offers for visa-securing assistance and when undocumented students apply for co-ops, some of which require applicants to be a U.S. citizen.
When considering students for financial aid, a student’s status is not a factor either. All students who apply are considered for need- and merit-based aid, which is integral to enrolling in and completing undergraduate education at Drexel, as the average tuition is over $52,000 per year, not including room and board.
Merit aid is offered by Drexel directly. Drexel is one of less than 500 schools in the United States that accepts the CSS profile, which is a private scholarship service that undocumented students can fill out to potentially cover their financial need for those who are ineligible for the FAFSA.
Additionally, as a private institution, Drexel offers its students aid directly from the institution. According to the University website, Drexel offered financial support to 95 percent of its full-time students, with an average of over $30,000 in aid, and approximately $16,000 in aid for transfer students. It is important to note that this includes federal, state and institutional aid.
However, according to Thimba, the amount of federal and state aid is significantly less than Drexel’s direct contribution. This past year, Drexel’s contribution to student aid was over $300 million in student investment. There are no Drexel scholarships for undocumented students specifically, but the direct aid the institution offers is considered generous in comparison to other institutions in the U.S.
The transition to higher education can be far more emotionally and financially stressful for undocumented students looking to further their educations. Biden’s immigration policies may make entering and remaining in the United States easier, but future policies could also focus on ensuring undocumented students can attend and pay for a full college experience.
Drexel University can decide to be more public about its support for all undocumented students, not just those protected by DACA. Drexel administration has stated clearly online that they support DACA and Dreamers at the University. However, there is no mention of undocumented students that are not eligible for DACA, which leaves more than half of undocumented students (about 216,000) unmentioned.