Dignity in Student Services in Higher Education

By Anna Laven

A freshman I had been advising thanked me for my help and shared that he was dropping out of college. He was bright, full of aspirations and many goals. We had successfully enrolled him in a full load of courses that would allow him to begin fulfilling general education and major requirements. Though students sometimes make the decision to leave, they don’t usually drop within the first few days. Scanning my notes, I didn’t see indications of the usual concerns. Yes, the student was a first-generation college goer, but that wasn’t unusual for our institution and could be addressed with a myriad of resources.

Surprised, I asked him what was going on? He hung his head as he explained that he couldn’t afford it. “Aha!” This will be a quick conversation. One phone call to the Financial Aid Office and all will be well. His disbursement check is probably just delayed, caused by some glitch in the system. I asked if he had filled out his FAFSA on time; he had not—his voice dropped, he could not fill out a FAFSA—he lacked eligibility; as an AB 540 student he could not legally work; he was stuck.

His parents worked in the fields and were barely making ends meet. The out of pocket expenses—$400—a for books and student fees were unaffordable and he couldn’t pay it. There was nothing I could do for him.

In a whisper he explained: he came to the U.S. when he was three, and was the only sibling who was not a U.S. citizen in his family; he didn’t know of his status until he applied for college when he learned that he did not have a social security number. His brothers and sisters, due to their citizenship status, could apply, complete a FAFSA, and have access.

That 15-minute encounter is a real dilemma; we promote education as the way up in American society and most of the time I believe it. While I hope I treated the student well on a personal level, I was still a party to a dehumanizing process. Our educational system communicated that he had less value than others—even his brothers and sisters. Events that took place when he was a toddler caused him to leave the institution without completing a single course, and with a sense of shame and lacking worth.

There are numerous barriers to accessing postsecondary education for students who are undocumented. A short list of the many questions undocumented students face:

  • During the outreach workshop, do I raise my hand to ask about the citizenship question?
  • During the financial aid workshop, how do I get help without disclosing that I don’t have a social security number?
  • There have been ICE raids in my community. Should I take the risk of walking out my front door to attend class?
  • I just got a book voucher, but the DACA renewal is $495. Which should I choose to pay for?
  • Which majors have courses with fieldwork that require a background check?
  • My student club is taking a trip to another state; I am concerned about travel documentation or being detained. Who can I ask?
  • I am meeting with a career counselor; how do I explain my worries about going into a field that requires a social security number for licensing?
  • My dad was detained last night. How do I explain to my professor that my paper is late because of my family situation? Can my professor report me?
  • I am worried ICE will come to campus. How do I know my information is safe?

Undocumented students carry a tremendous mental load, and research shows this impacts student success. Diversity theories present many impacts of the lack of access and social stratification of some groups when compared with others. Faculty, however, do not have training in immigration issues in the same ways as they do in other student stresses like title IX and sexual assault issues. These barriers and the high level of risk for undocumented students translate to the worth we place on this student group. For those of us working in public education, where access is meant to be universal and fair, this should represent a significant concern.

Non-profit “Immigrants Rising” estimates that 100,000 undocumented high school students graduate every year and that a third are in California (where I work); serving undocumented students should be fundamentally recognized as a need on college campuses, but it is not. None will have access to DACA (Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals) next year, making paying for a college education that much more difficult, and, like many policy decisions, a plan is not in place for responding to this predictable challenge in a way that offers dignity to the impacted student populations.

According to the National Immigration Law Center, if an undocumented person lives in Alabama, South Carolina, or Georgia, they are banned from attending college altogether. Undocumented students in those three states lack any access at all; they are completely segregated from their peers on the basis of their citizenship status.

Conversely, some access to resources and passage of legislation in states like California is beginning to change the experience of students who are undocumented. For many potential students, however, access and ability to pay for college is only available on a state-by-state basis.

I am at the forefront of the issue in this regard because California is leading in terms of legislation. Some of the ways California has addressed access to higher education for students who are undocumented, from my perspective, are working.

The passage of AB 540 in 2001 allows students who would otherwise be charged non-resident tuition to be exempted and charged at the in-state rate if they attended a high school for three years and graduated, or equivalent. The passage of AB 2000 and SB 68 expanded in-state exemptions to include elementary, middle school, adult school and some community college course work. The California Dream Act, in 2011, allows undocumented students the opportunity to access certain types of state provided financial aid covering some fees. California has also passed the TRUTH Act which became effective January 1, 2017. Discussion of the bill is ongoing; the Greater Bakersfield (where I live) Legal Assistance Inc. recently (October, 2019) held a second “Immigrant Civil Rights Conference,” to address the lack of transparency and accountability that the TRUTH act is intended to address by ensuring that all ICE deportation programs that depend on entanglement with local law enforcement agencies in California are subject to meaningful public oversight, to promote public safety and preserve limited local resources.

The California Master Plan for Higher Education, originally adopted in 1960 and reaffirmed in 2002, established three educational systems: the UC, CSU and the California Community Colleges. That Master Plan affirmed access within admissions for anyone who met eligibility criteria, affordability, equity and quality. There have been a number of efforts focused on adjusting budget and supporting advocacy for undocumented students within these three systems. The provision of dignity to undocumented students is demonstrated through the following initiatives and activities:

  • The “California Dreamers Project” report.
  • The California Campus Catalyst Fund supplies needed funds and supports initiatives at 19 campuses addressing the needs of undocumented students.
  • The California Community College Chancellor’s Office has supported the recognition of the Undocumented Student Week of Action, in coordination with the Community College League of California and Immigrants Rising, for the last two years.
  • The California State Universities have been allocated funds for each campus to house immigration legal services with the California Community Colleges soon to follow.
  • October 12, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom approved Assembly Bill 1645, requiring all California Community College and California State Universities and requesting the University of California to designate a Dreamer Resource Liaison who would assist students by streamlining access to all available financial aid, social services, state-funded immigration legal services and academic opportunities.
  • AB1645 also encourages campuses to establish Dream Resource Centers.
  • The new Vision for Student Success specifically pegs additional funds for every AB 540 student (full-time equivalent) enrolled at California Community Colleges.

Higher education is a unique place to talk about and think about dignity, particularly within public institutions. Frequently, dignity is conceptualized as a quality of being worthy, respected, and treated with value. Through the enactment of laws and policies that require access to financial aid, recognition of unique needs, and support of student engagement and advocacy, college campuses begin to reduce barriers, treating undocumented students with more dignity and respect than has been evidenced in the past. Are we completely there yet? No. Undocumented students still experience daily entanglements that look a lot like second-class treatment. States and colleges could learn a great deal from the efforts taking place in California, where efforts to provide equality of opportunity are being made. The leadership of the state government, coupled with the commitment of college leadership and the dedicated advocacy of campus allies, can certainly help us get to a place where all students are treated with dignity and respect.


Anna Laven, ED.D., is the AB 540 Program Manager at Bakersfield College. She has 20 years of service experience in higher education, public policy, and research. She has a B.A. in Women’s Studies from Scripps College and an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from the University of California, Los Angeles. Much of her work focuses on diverse student populations including students with disabilities, undocumented students, first-generation attendees, and early college goers.