Colliding Worlds: DACA Recipients and Higher Education

She didn’t do anything wrong—at least by her own volition. 

When Marisol Estrada graduated from high school, her choice for college was not a difficult one to make. Having lived her whole life in her home state of Georgia, she chose to stay local, attending Armstrong State University. When she learned that ASU stopped increasing tuition after 15 credit hours per semester, she made sure to enroll in at least 18 to maximize the value of every dollar she spent. In order to fund her education, Estrada took up multiple jobs and applied for countless funding opportunities. Her former high school teachers even created a scholarship fund to support her. Even as she fought against financial instability and balanced a furious work schedule, Estrada ended up graduating Magna Cum Laude from her university. Today, she works as a political activist. 

Estrada is a product of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Brought to the United States from Mexico when she was just five years old, she has been raised in Georgia for nearly her entire life. English is her first language, she pays taxes, and she even volunteers at local community organizations. Despite her undocumented status, she is, in her own words, “as American as can be.” Her ethos, one of grit and self-determination, is a striking image of what writer James Truslow Adams originally described as the “American Dream”: the ability for everyone “to attain the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.”


Today, however, that dream is increasingly coming under threat. The program, originally a 2012 Executive Order from the Obama Administration, offers temporary immunity (in two-year renewable segments) and work permits for children who were brought to the United States illegally. It was designed to create educational and economic opportunities for those like Estrada, Americans in all but name. 

Although DACA enjoys an overwhelming coalition of support across the aisle, the current administration has led a series of efforts to dismantle the program. Beginning with a 2017 memo from the Department of Homeland Security, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke sought to declare the program illegal. This move, as many readers likely know, was blocked by the Supreme Court this June in a 5-4 decision. In the ruling, the Court decided that the original memo failed to sufficiently address the effect of a DACA rescission—that DACA recipients have gone to college, started businesses, pay $60 billion a year in taxes, and have 200,000 children of their own who are U.S. citizens. As such, the program is safe for now. 

While the program’s safe-for-now status has been highly publicized in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, what is less known are the practical challenges that DACA recipients face. In particular, as many grow into college age and seek opportunities in higher education and beyond, several state governments have taken the baton from the federal government. In doing so, they have pushed a patchwork of policies, clustered around higher education, that have created a stifling environment for DACA recipients seeking a better life. 


Let’s look to Estrada again.

Despite her upbringing in the United States, she does not qualify as a “lawfully present” American in the state of Georgia. This argument, pushed by statewide officials in a series of ongoing legal battles, maintains that even if she holds a job, pays taxes, and has kids in the United States, DACA is merely deferring her deportation. By outlining this loophole in her status, legislators in Georgia have erected key barriers to pathways for her (and others’) socioeconomic advancement. The first of these is a blanket ban on top public universities. When the DACA program was first enacted in 2012, Georgia’s Board of Regents explicitly barred recipients from attending any of the state’s top public universities: University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, or Georgia State University. Even if the students, like Estrada, were high performers at their high school, “lawfully present” clauses inserted into university charters allowed administrators to block access to DACA recipients. The second barrier is more pernicious. Beyond keeping qualified DACA applicants from prestigious universities, Georgia law also mandates that DACA recipients pay out-of-state tuition for higher education. For Estrada, the first of these policies meant that she could not attend a college commensurate to her scholarly prowess and work ethic. The second forced her, a high-performing student, employee, and taxpayer, to pay tens of thousands of dollars per semester for community college. 

Estrada isn’t alone. Out of the estimated 700,000 active DACA recipients in the United States, most are college-aged and over half are enrolled in some form of secondary or postsecondary education. Yet, according to the National Council for State Legislatures, only 21 states offer some form of a so-called “tuition equity” law, legislation that allows DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition. A few others offer financial aid in some form. At the same time, several states have joined Georgia in explicitly barring access to certain top public colleges. Two, Alabama and South Carolina, prohibit access to all public universities. 

In some sense, out-of-state tuition laws may appear justifiable. After all, undocumented parents of Dreamers often don’t contribute the taxes that go toward funding public institutions. Indeed, in the documentary The Unafraid, Georgia’s Board of Regents cited this exact cause when pressed for a reason for their DACA out-of-state tuition policy. This perspective, however, misses two key realities. The first of these is the moral argument—where, in the words of Dan Douglas, a Republican state legislator in Arkansas, the need for tuition equity extends beyond a nativist perspective: 

[This is about] giving these kids that grew up here, that are here legally or [have] attained legal status through the DACA program, the ability to get in-state tuition… this is their home as much as it’s my grandchildren’s home, because this is where they’ve grown up.

The second reality is purely practical. The in-state tuition law for which Douglas was advocating actually passed with bipartisan support in deeply conservative Arkansas last year. Research studies commissioned by the legislature have shown that the new DACA talent pool, while small, will contribute nearly $4 million dollars in spending power to Arkansas’s economy. Similar studies have revealed broader economic and social benefits (new jobs, reduced crime, lower rates of poverty, etc.) by allowing DACA recipients to use college as a socioeconomic springboard. Because they are taxpayers and their children are citizens of the United States, DACA recipients who are integrated within “the system” have seen large advances in their socioeconomic status and can provide lasting benefits for their municipalities and communities. It is under that line of thought that many states are increasingly considering tuition equity laws as a long-term investment in their communities. 

Tuition equity laws, however, remain far beyond the horizon in Georgia, where the existing battle remains in simply allowing DACA recipients to apply to and enroll in top public universities. Georgia’s Board of Regents asserts that allowing DACA students to apply and enroll would deprive legal citizens of their spots—and that its DACA policy merely upholds the rights of everyday Georgians. This argument, a common one not just with university enrollment but also with jobs and immigration in general, was also cited by now-Governor Brian Kemp in the 2018 gubernatorial election as a reason to abolish DACA as a whole. 

However, just as with the arguments against tuition equity, most research has offered a differing perspective. Far from creating an environment where DACA students “hog” all of the spots, most experts agree that allowing DACA enrollment would increase the stature of the university. In a similar situation to tuition equity, opening the doors for high-performing DACA students would similarly act as a long-term investment, creating a more competitive and more dynamic talent pool. Many DACA recipients have overcome tremendous obstacles yet manage to obtain GPAs and SAT scores that far exceed university averages. These students have earned their place. 

Estrada is a living example of one of these people—and is currently one of the top litigants in a legal battle against the State of Georgia. Her claim, centered around the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, is going through court. While an Atlanta judge ruled against her last year, she is appealing; if successful, she may be able to win an injunction against the policy. 

Elsewhere, similar battles go on. Organizations representing DACA students have filed lawsuits in states with policies similar to Georgia’s—some of which extend beyond higher education. In Arizona, for instance, Governor Doug Ducey recently ended a years-long effort to bar DACA recipients from another critical government service: the ability to obtain a driver’s license. After a protracted legal fight, a district judge issued an injunction against this policy last year. By early 2019, the Arizona Department of Transportation began issuing licenses. 

Even as national policy remains at a standstill, changes continue on a state-by-state level, both in higher education and elsewhere. It is these policies, however incremental they may be, that are slowly prying open the lid of opportunities for DACA recipients. It is these battles, unfolding each day, that define the current movement for DACA: for its existence, for its progression, and for its future.



Jeffrey Wang

Jeffrey Wang is a writer from San Diego, California. His work has been awarded national medals by the Alliance of Young Artists & Writers and received recognition from The San Diego Union-Tribune. In his free time, you can find him strolling local beaches or wandering the outskirts of the Mojave.

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