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Comfort Zones

January 2016

By Sandra R. Sabo

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Recruiting immigrant students, legally documented or not, raises issues of cost, culture, and respect. College completion can hinge on funding, trust, and safe “retreat” spaces where students can relax among themselves.

Here’s a head-turning statistic from the U.S. Census Bureau: In 2012, Hispanics represented 23 percent of elementary and high school students in the United States—but only 7 percent of college students. Overall, reports the Census Bureau, 13 percent of Hispanics hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 30 percent of the nonHispanic population.

In trying to reach our nation’s educational achievement goals, policymakers and educators are eager to understand and curtail this falloff in educational attainment. This has led to a close look at not only cultural issues, but also the consideration of students’ immigration status. While people from Latin America and the Caribbean account for more than half (53 percent) of the U.S. foreign-born population, they also represent the majority (64 percent) of noncitizens under the age of 35 who live in the United States. Those individuals who lack legal immigration status often encounter numerous obstacles when pursuing higher education.

“Immigration is really a spectrum of rights and privileges and access that can be difficult to navigate,” observes Andrea Gaytan, director of the AB540 and Undocumented Student Center at the University of California, Davis. “The students who are undocumented have no rights or privileges at all and could be deported right away. Then you have people on Temporary Protected Status or on visas, who are protected from deportation, but don’t necessarily qualify for any financial benefits.”

Public and Private Initiatives

Since 2012, the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has provided a bit of breathing room. DACA, which must be renewed every two years, grants temporary relief from deportation to unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and meet various residential and educational criteria.

“While not an education-related form of relief, DACA does allow students to work legally, providing access to employment options that had been closed to them. Now, they can work legitimately and not be relegated to service industry positions or places that would pay them under the table,” Gaytan says. DACA students can also apply for a Social Security number and, in some states, for a driver’s license.

As of May 2014, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had approved 550,000 DACA applications, out of an eligible population estimated at 1.9 million. The vast majority of approved DACA applications (83 percent) are for people originally from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala—and the highest percentage of them (29 percent) live in California.

Long before DACA, however, California took action to provide undocumented students access to higher education. The state assembly’s 2001 approval of AB540 made many undocumented residents eligible for in-state tuition at California’s public colleges and universities. A dozen years later, passage of the California Dream Act opened the door to state funding (Cal Grants of $9,000) and to institutional and private scholarships.

“Before the Dream Act, many students had been admitted but postponed attendance—or they declined admission because they didn’t have sufficient funds to cover tuition and housing,” Gaytan notes. “They typically stayed in the holding pattern of taking classes at community colleges, not being able to afford the leap to getting a four-year degree.” In the last three years, UC Davis has seen its population of undocumented students more than triple, to 270.

Boosting the number of undocumented students on its campus has become a strategic priority for Christian Brothers University (CBU) in Memphis. Through its recently launched Latino Student Success Program, the university has pledged to provide $12.5 million in four-year scholarships to a total of 100 students. The program will impact approximately 20 students per year for the next five years.

“Undocumented students do not have access to federal grants and loans, which leaves a tremendous gap. They often have parents working two and three jobs to make ends meet,” says Carolyn Head, chief financial officer and vice president for administration and finance at CBU, which enrolls 1,100. “These students really need our assistance, and it’s to the benefit of our community as a whole to provide a quality education to them.”

CBU heavily discounts its tuition—up to 60 percent—and provides institutional aid to students in the program as well as relying on two major donors for additional funds. “Our donors want the students to have what they refer to as ‘skin in the game.’ In other words, the students are expected to cover their out-of-pocket expenses, which range from $2,000 to $3,000 per year,” Head explains. One of the two donors provides funding for private loans that require payment of $50 per month until graduation.

Strategic Imperatives

The financial burden of paying for higher education can be equally pressing for students who have legal immigration status. Many scholarships are limited to U.S. citizens, for example, and banks may not offer the most favorable loan terms to those still on the path to naturalized citizenship. Even immigrants who have attained U.S. citizenship may have low income levels, exerting more pressure on institutions themselves.

“We’ve had to increase our discount rate. Our most recent freshman class came in at a 47 percent discount, the first time we’ve ever been in that range,” reports Chris K. McAlary, vice president of administration and finance at Mount Saint Mary’s University (MSMU), Los Angeles. The university, which primarily enrolls women in its traditional undergraduate program, has also seen a decrease in the average annual salary reported on the FAFSA in the past few years.

“Our student population is about 57 percent Latino, and many of them are first-generation college students,” says McAlary, adding that MSMU employs a need-blind admissions process and does not ask about immigration status. “Part of our mission is to serve the underserved, and Los Angeles has a large Latino population at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. If we can get the students here, we’ll help them to be successful.”

Mount Saint Mary’s offers merit scholarships that range from $12,000 to $18,000, regardless of the student’s status, and empowers its financial aid office to do all it can for students struggling to make ends meet. The investment pays off: First-time, full-time Hispanic students at MSMU register both retention and graduation rates that are slightly above the rates for all students.

For more than 20 years, serving first-generation students has also been a strategic priority for Concordia University, St. Paul, in Minnesota, which traditionally draws students from a 500-mile radius. “We’ve always been intentionally targeted to our urban community and its diverse populations who, whether citizen or noncitizen, are typically foreign born,” says Eric LaMott, senior vice president and chief operations officer for Concordia University St. Paul (CSP). “Immigrant students aren’t just segments of our overall population—they are who Concordia is.”

About 15 years ago, CSP saw an uptick in its Hmong students, a reflection of Minnesota having the second highest Hmong population in the United States. Within the last five years, Concordia has welcomed growing numbers of students born in Somalia, most of whom came to the United States as refugees or to seek asylum. Soon, based on demographic projections, LaMott expects a large influx of Latino students.

“Many of these students have parents who haven’t gone to college, but strongly value and recognize the stepping-stone that is an American degree,” he observes. “First-generation students, regardless of ethnicity, are motivated to do well. They recognize the financial sacrifices their families are making for their education.”

Cultural Sensitivities

However similar their motivations, different immigrant populations exhibit nuances that require institutional adjustments. Among the Hmong population, for example, Concordia St. Paul had to build trust that it welcomed and valued student diversity. In 2004, the university opened the world’s only Center for Hmong Studies, an academic resource center serving students, academics, and the wider community.

“Once we had the trust, word of mouth drove enrollment. Having brothers and sisters attend the same school is a part of the culture,” LaMott says. For the Latino culture, which tends to be family oriented and faith based, Concordia emphasizes its religious orientation and focuses its recruiting efforts more on families than individual students. LaMott notes, “Latino family members really look out for each other and are interconnected, as opposed to being independent like many American families.”

Once students arrive on campus, the adjustments continue. What’s standard for other students may make immigrant students uneasy or uncomfortable. Take, for example, this recommendation commonly given during student orientations: Always call the campus police if you feel threatened or don’t feel safe. Sound advice—unless you’re an undocumented student or from a country where police are viewed in a less-than-friendly light.

Even the suggestion to visit the health center may confuse an immigrant unaccustomed to receiving medical care, observes Cynthia Teniente-Matson, president of Texas A&M University–San Antonio (TAMUSA). “Undocumented or immigrant students often don’t want to call attention to themselves and involve someone in a position of power or authority, because of trust factors or concerns that they will be reported,” she says, emphasizing that DACA status is only temporary and could be revoked by a future presidential administration.

“There’s always a ‘what if’ scenario in the back of their minds,” she adds, “which is added to the stresses of being good students.” Through its office of international affairs, TAMUSA aims to reduce that stress by offering assistance on DACA and immigration regulations, and the financial aid process. The university also relies on peer student mentors, particularly during the orientation process, to welcome and introduce new students to the support services available.

“Students prefer to work with other students, so informal networks are always better for making connections,” says Teniente-Matson. TAMUSA has found that smaller groups or one-on-one peer interactions work especially well for disseminating information about university support services that involve figures of authority.

At UC Davis, where the center for immigrant students prominently features the word undocumented, Andrea Gaytan acknowledges that the title can be a drawback. “Some students call or e-mail us to ask questions because they don’t want to be seen going into the center,” she reports. “After they have a few meetings elsewhere on campus with a staff member, they usually feel comfortable coming into the center itself. Then they see the center is not stigmatizing, but a great resource.”

Making Headway

Whether your institution has already embraced immigrant populations or identified the need to do so, here are some suggestions for putting out the welcome mat:

Establish a presence in the community. Gaytan and her staff frequently give presentations at nearby high schools, not to recruit for UC Davis, but to explain the educational options and support available throughout the UC system.

“We emphasize to students that being undocumented does not mean forgoing all the decision making that will benefit them and their families—and, ultimately, the community and the state,” she says. “They should still go to the university that is the best fit for them geographically and academically.”

For several decades, a student ambassador program has placed Mount Saint Mary’s University students in inner-city schools to serve as classroom mentors, tutors, and role models for youngsters who aspire to earn a college degree. With one of its two campuses located in downtown Los Angeles, MSMU also maintains a physical presence in the area that serves many of its students.

MSMU’s downtown campus offers an associate in arts (AA) degree, adult undergraduate, and professional nursing courses, plus a doctor of physical therapy program. Through a learning resource center, it also offers students access to tutoring and academic support. “We work with the AA students so that they are ready for—and become a pipeline for—the baccalaureate program at our other campus,” explains Chris McAlary.

Similarly, Concordia St. Paul embraces its urban location to build trust and familiarity among immigrant populations. For example, it hosts a summer day camp for Hmong youngsters and invites its education students to teach English in Somali neighborhoods. The university is located near a Somali charter school and takes responsibility as the authorizer for several Hmong charter schools, all of which serve as natural feeders.

Seek others’ expertise. When it launched its Latino Student Success Program, Christian Brothers University formed a partnership with Latino Memphis, a local agency that advocates for health, education, and justice issues. “When it comes to undocumented students, it’s important to have additional support, especially for designing a social environment,” says Carolyn Head. “Latino Memphis helped us connect and collaborate within the general community and helped us organize Hola CBU, a campus organization that provides a support group for Latino students.”

Looking beyond its immediate community, Texas A&M University–San Antonio has begun the process of becoming a partner institution in TheDream.US. Founded in 2014 and headquartered in Arlington, Va., the nonprofit organization provides undocumented students who qualify for DACA scholarships the opportunity to attend partner institutions.

Of TAMUSA’s total enrollment of 4,600, 70 percent self-identify as Latino or Latina, and 56 percent are the first in their family to attend college. Cynthia Teniente-Matson expects the number of undocumented students within those totals to grow as the emerging university begins adding freshmen and sophomores. The Texas Dream Act, passed in 2001, already makes in-state tuition and state financial aid programs available to noncitizen residents who meet certain criteria; affiliating with TheDream.US will expand TAMUSA’s opportunities to serve more students. Teniente-Matson notes, “Working with TheDream.US program gives us access to [the program’s] best practices and expertise, and enables us to communicate more effectively with the undocumented population to ensure success and support.”

Offer comfort zones. It’s one thing to recruit immigrant students to your campus; it’s quite another to make them feel respected and comfortable. “Seeing people who look like them makes immigrants feel less anxious and more welcome. Particularly for first-generation students, you need to set up retreat spaces where they can just hang out with each other,” observes Eric LaMott. That’s why Concordia St. Paul has a Hmong center on its campus and designates lounges for Somali students’ use.

At UC Davis, the AB540 and Undocu-mented Student Center provides a safe environment where students can focus on being students. As Andrea Gaytan notes, “Here, they can talk about their lives without worrying about what they say. For example, they can talk about being 20 years old and not having a driver’s license, and nobody will bat an eye.” Only after the students have developed a rapport with the center’s staff—many of whom are also students—do they typically ask for assistance.

Make life easier. In acknowledgment of its student demographics, Mount Saint Mary’s University often conducts orientation sessions in Spanish. At Christian Brothers University, a faculty member fluent in Spanish serves as a special academic adviser to students in the Latino Student Success Program. And, partly in a nod to its immigrant students, Concordia St. Paul is streamlining student-oriented processes to become less confusing and easier to navigate.

“We’re moving from a transactional campus, where you take a ticket and wait for whomever is available, to a relational campus,” explains LaMott.

Each student will have not only the same financial counselor and the same academic mentor for four years, but also access to those advisers’ calendars to schedule meetings and conversations. He adds, “The advisers become an ongoing team, working closely with a student to understand and get through the processes and minutiae in higher education.”

Help fill any gaps. The general assumption, says LaMott, is that immigrant students arrive at college less academically prepared than other students. “That’s not the case,” he states. “In fact, they have the same academic challenges as other students, primarily in the areas of math and writing skills.” Concordia provides both tutors and peer mentors to offer academic assistance.

Latino Memphis provides tutoring and mentoring services to Christian Brothers University’s Latino students who need additional support as first-generation college students. “Providing that additional assistance is key to retaining and graduating these students,” says Carolyn Head. CBU’s Latino Student Success Program, now in its second year, registered a 92 percent retention rate among first-time freshmen. In addition, the program’s participants have an average GPA that is slightly above that of the university’s general population.

Remain alert to unanticipated needs. CBU unexpectedly ran into challenges when processing IRS Forms 1098-T, affecting both international and undocumented students. Some of the resulting confusion has been alleviated through proactive orientation sessions, which assist students in applying for a Taxpayer Identification Number.

Now in its second year of operation, the undocumented student center at UC Davis has found that most students experience a funding gap of about $2,000 per quarter after institutional and state aid have been applied to tuition, fees, room, and board. “We often see students struggling with discretionary things—getting by on as little food as possible and reading books on reserve in the library, rather than renting or buying them,” Gaytan reports.

To help alleviate the situation, the center is working on facilitating book swaps and donations, and recently established an emergency grant and meals program. “It’s only a Band-Aid, not a complete solution, and we don’t know if it’s sustainable. But, at least we can provide students with five hot meals [per week] at one of the dining facilities on campus,” says Gaytan.

Looking ahead several decades, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the U.S. population will continue becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. The Asian population, for instance, is expected to increase 143 percent by 2060; during that same time, the Hispanic population is projected to increase 115 percent and represent 31 percent of all U.S. residents.

Also by 2060, 19 percent of the American population will be foreign born—up from 14 percent in 2014. These numbers simply can’t be ignored by any educational institution planning to be around for another half-century.

“Are immigrants a challenge or an opportunity? It all depends on your frame of reference,” says Concordia’s LaMott. “For us, they are already an opportunity—and a demographic reality.”

Sandra R. Sabo, Mendota Heights, Minn., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

Related Topics

These students really need our assistance, and it’s to the benefit of our community as a whole to provide a quality education to them.

—Carolyn Head, Christian Brothers University

CBU’s Latino Student Success Program, now in its second year, registered a 92 percent retention rate among first-time freshmen.