Pathways to Nowhere for Georgia’s Undocumented

Georgia students without papers must pay out-of-state tuition and are barred from attending some of the state’s top colleges.

The tower on the Georgia Tech campus. Photo by Hector Alejandro via Flickr
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Dec. 17, 2013, midnight

Some stu­dents who gradu­ate from Dalton High School are for­bid­den, un­der state law, from at­tend­ing Geor­gia’s five most se­lect­ive uni­versit­ies. They must pay out-of-state tu­ition at all state col­leges. On top of that, they’re in­eligible for state and fed­er­al fin­an­cial aid and fed­er­al stu­dent loans. These young people may also find it hard to pay their way through col­lege: They’re for­bid­den from get­ting a driver’s li­cense, ob­tain­ing a work per­mit, or start­ing their own busi­ness.

Un­doc­u­mented stu­dents may make up about 8 per­cent of Dalton High’s stu­dent body, former Prin­cip­al Debbie Free­man es­tim­ates. No mat­ter how well the school tries to pre­pare all stu­dents for the fu­ture, some gradu­ates find they have few op­tions after 12th grade.

“We do have stu­dents who leave us that are un­doc­u­mented, who are highly qual­i­fied to enter four-year uni­versit­ies. Some of them have been our very best stu­dents,” Prin­cip­al Steve Bar­too says. Many of those stu­dents can’t af­ford a four-year school without fin­an­cial aid. They end up work­ing part time to scrape to­geth­er money for a com­munity-col­lege de­gree in­stead.

Many young people in Geor­gia face the same bar­ri­ers. As of Au­gust, 17,964 Geor­gia res­id­ents had ap­plied for De­ferred Ac­tion, the fed­er­al pro­gram that al­lows some people brought to the U.S. as chil­dren to ob­tain tem­por­ary work per­mits. The state ranks eighth in the num­ber of such ap­plic­a­tions.

While ap­prov­al for De­ferred Ac­tion makes it easi­er for stu­dents to find work (and get a state driver’s li­cense), it doesn’t make col­lege any more af­ford­able. Cur­rently, some De­ferred Ac­tion re­cip­i­ents are su­ing the Geor­gia Board of Re­gents, ask­ing that they be al­lowed to pay in-state tu­ition. Some pro­fess­ors at the Uni­versity of Geor­gia are vol­un­tar­ily hold­ing classes for un­doc­u­mented stu­dents.

There isn’t much high schools can do, oth­er than ad­vise un­doc­u­mented stu­dents to ap­ply to private col­leges that of­fer fin­an­cial aid, or to head out of state for school. “We also know what states would al­low them to go to col­lege, and we tell them, ‘It would be wise of you to think about how can you move here, and es­tab­lish res­id­ency and then go to school, and then come back to Dalton,’ ” Free­man says. Six­teen states cur­rently al­low un­doc­u­mented stu­dents to pay in-state tu­ition, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Con­fer­ence of State Le­gis­latures.

The Geor­gia Board of Re­gents banned un­doc­u­mented stu­dents from the state’s most se­lect­ive in­sti­tu­tions to free space for leg­al res­id­ents. In truth, the ban didn’t open that much space: In 2010, just 27 un­doc­u­mented stu­dents were en­rolled in the top five state uni­versit­ies. Less than 0.2 per­cent of stu­dents in all state high­er-edu­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions were un­doc­u­mented at that time.

Few un­doc­u­mented stu­dents cur­rently de­cide to pur­sue high­er edu­ca­tion in Geor­gia. It’s worth ask­ing what it would mean for Geor­gia’s eco­nomy if un­doc­u­mented res­id­ents — per­haps 7 per­cent of the state work­force, ac­cord­ing to the Pew His­pan­ic Cen­ter — found it easi­er to fur­ther their edu­ca­tion there. Geor­gia wants to get every child on the path to a ca­reer, but some stu­dents find their paths blocked.

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