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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Dreaming of College: A Path to Higher Education for Undocumented Students

By Michael M. Honda — April 06, 2009 3 min read
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At the end of March, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives reintroduced in Congress the DREAM Act, legislation I am co-sponsoring that would provide 360,000 undocumented high school graduates with legal means to work and attend college in the United States. The bill (whose acronym stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) may well reinvigorate public furor over immigration, and will no doubt receive even greater attention when the College Board releases what will be a groundbreaking report, “Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented Students.”

Despite the bill’s bipartisan support and previous Republican leadership on this legislation, cries for a “return home” to native countries may surface, and some may claim undocumented students will usurp our school seats and funding.

Given this potential reaction, there is cause for clarification, since many concerns are unfounded. In fact, the projected results of this legislation may be surprising to skeptics. The DREAM Act would provide a serious shot in the arm to our struggling economy, and, if it is passed, our educational investments would see substantially better returns.

Here is our current conundrum that the DREAM Act is keen to fix. Presently, roughly 65,000 undocumented students who have lived in the United States for five years or longer graduate from high school each year. While they can, in theory, proceed to college, most cannot since they are ineligible for financial aid.

This sets up a financial blow to our economy in two key ways.

First, state and federal dollars spent on K-12 education are not being efficiently returned to our economy, since high school graduates make about half as much as college graduates in the professional market. That means that, every year, as many as 65,000 undocumented high school graduates enter the American marketplace financially ill-equipped to improve their own circumstances and make greater contributions to the U.S. economy.

An ill-equipped student makes for an ill-equipped earner: Across all racial and ethnic groups, there is a positive correlation between higher levels of education and higher earnings. Compare the average weekly earnings of high school graduates, at roughly $600 a week, with those of college graduates, at roughly $1,000 a week. Consider the unemployment rate among high school graduates, at 9 percent, with that of college graduates, at only 4 percent.

Lower earners pay lower taxes and have a lower purchasing power in the marketplace, and social services for the unemployed are burdened further. As an example of the economic-stimulus potential from increased schooling, a 1999 study found that a 30-year-old immigrant woman with a college degree would pay $5,300 more in taxes and require $3,900 less in government expenses each year compared with a high school dropout with similar characteristics. This would amount to a total annual increased fiscal contribution of more than $9,000 per person.

Second, we are missing an opportunity to provide undocumented immigrants with a chance for substantial upward mobility, a pursuit only possible with legal status. The more upwardly mobile immigrants are, the more taxes they pay, and the more capable they are of contributing economically to society. The DREAM Act makes these financial returns possible by enabling undocumented immigrant youths, brought into this country years ago as children, to obtain legal permanent-resident status if they graduate from high school and go on to college or military service.

Studies consistently show that undocumented immigrants who receive legal status move on to significantly better jobs, thus broadening the tax base. In one example, the U.S. Department of Labor found that the wages of immigrants legalized under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 had increased by roughly 15 percent five years later.

While there is a host of moral reasons why we should help undocumented students legally pursue their dreams in college and beyond, the financial benefits alone seem sufficient to warrant a serious discussion on the merits of the DREAM Act. And at a time when our economy is desperately seeking solace in every possibility of stimulus, the gains here are too inviting to ignore, and these students’ dreams too promising to pass up.

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