How These Undocumented Latino Students Are Finding Their Way to College

The California Dream Act took effect in 2011, giving undocumented youth in the state an unprecedented path to college. But faced with too few counselors to guide them, a tricky digital application process and seemingly small hurdles that can snowball into much larger problems, a number of Dreamers aren’t learning the right moves to get into college until it’s too late.

In California, this is particularly a problem because of the high ratio of students to counselors. Eric Blanco, the president-elect of the California Association of School Counselors, said that on average in the state, there is 1 school counselor to 950 students. “The national model is 1 to 250 students,” he said.

It’s not difficult to see why the neediest high school students find themselves unguided as they apply to college.

Counselors lack the time and resources to give all students the personal attention needed to prepare for college. So why don’t students seek them out? Teenagers are notoriously self-conscious and speaking up—even to say that they need help—can be frightening for them. And while undocumented students here can apply for state financial aid through the California Dream Act, students often decide not to disclose their immigration status to school faculty.

Blanco said when he presents sessions on college at his school, he includes information about the resources available for undocumented students. But he acknowledged that this move might not be enough to put such students at ease.

“Students may want to know if [the counseling office] is a safe place they feel like they can go to and be honest about their status and not be judged,” he said. “Counselors need to be sensitive in terms of creating those safe spaces. They need to develop rapport with those students, so they know that we’re not trying to judge you. We’re trying to provide better services for you.”

Keiry and Jorge, a pair of Los Angeles students, recently discussed their paths to college and the obstacles they faced. The students are strangers, but they share similar circumstances. They’re both undocumented and, as the eldest of their siblings, the first members of their family to attend college.

They weren’t primed early for higher education, as many of their privileged peers tend to be. They didn’t learn about the requirements for college admission until 11th grade. Their late exposure to the college admission process, combined with their immigration status and lack of college-educated relatives, put them at a distinct disadvantage.

“Since I’m the first generation, I’m the first one thrown out there,” said Keiry, a 12th-grader who attends high school downtown.

Keiry, High School Senior in Los Angeles
Keiry, 18, has a B- grade point average and even landed a competitive internship last summer as an artist assistant at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But her test scores—she’s an English-language learner—were low, and she recently found out that all of the colleges she applied to rejected her.

Keiry sought admission into multiple branches of the California State University system, including San Bernardino and Humboldt. She neglected to apply to Cal State Los Angeles, her home campus and the one where she would have received admission preference. But Keiry didn’t realize she would have had an edge there.

She saw college as an opportunity to get a fresh start in a new place.

“I wanted to move out of my home,” she said. Not applying to the one school in her area might have cost her the chance to enter a university straight out of high school. She now plans to attend community college.

Had Keiry been prepped for the process well before junior year, she likely would have known how admission preference works. Instead, she said, her English teacher gave her tips about applying to college, but she received little help from the one faculty member responsible for guiding students through the application process—her school counselor.

Keiry attended informational sessions about college at her high school but never met with the counselor individually about what she needed to do for admission. Meanwhile her peers at prep schools have several adults—parents, counselors, tutors, coaches, teachers—all maneuvering to see that they not only get into college, but an exclusive one. Far too often, vulnerable students like Keiry end up approaching this complicated process alone.

“It has been really stressful,” she said.

Jorge, a student at Glendale Community College (GCC), just outside Los Angeles, applied to college with little to no help from a school counselor. He sought admission into several California State University (CSU) campuses, including Long Beach, Northridge, Dominguez Hills and Los Angeles. He earned mostly A’s and B’s, but CSU ultimately informed him it didn’t have all the necessary paperwork from him for admission.

“I had all my papers returned,” said Jorge, now 20. But he never found out which document was missing.

“I was working 40 hours a week,” he said. “I didn’t have time.”

Jorge wasn’t just working full-time during his senior year of high school, but commuting more than 20 miles each way to get to his job as a restaurant dishwasher. With little time to track down the errant paperwork, he decided to attend community college instead.

Students applying to the CSU campuses do so via an online portal, an additional barrier for underprivileged youth. Those without computers or Internet access at home may not be able to log into the system at will. So, a seemingly minor problem, like a missing document, may be all it takes for them to give up on the process.

When Jorge enrolled in GCC last fall, his challenges didn’t end. The school required him to take two semesters of remedial English classes. And when he earned a D on a writing assignment, he thought, “I should drop out.”

But he also signed up for an introductory Chinese language course, which he described as “an amazing experience.”

“It was really hard,” he said, “but I ended up passing it with a B.”

The highlight of the year was when a friend referred him to an organization called La Comunidad. The program, which launched two years ago with federal Student Support Services Program funds, helps students who are the first in their families to enter college get the resources they need to transfer to a four-year university. Students in the program must maintain at least a B- average. Through La Comunidad, they can receive iPads, food vouchers, bus tokens and help applying for financial aid.

Community college students, including Jorge, commonly have the misperception that they don’t qualify for aid. But students attending two-year and four-year colleges alike may be eligible. The California Dream Act allows undocumented students specifically to receive a variety of grants at community colleges and public universities in the state, but according to EdSource, a third of these grants weren’t used by students last year.

In addition to not knowing they’re eligible for aid, some students fear that applying for financial help will put them at risk for deportation, even though colleges in California don’t hand over student records to immigration authorities.

La Comunidad dispels the misinformation and fears students have about college.

“The program is geared toward first-generation, low-income students,” said Oscar Flores, La Comunidad’s student success and support programs counselor. “We hold their hands, tell them exactly what they need to build a strong academic record and transfer to a university in about two years.”

La Comunidad is a boon to the 180 students it serves, and it would benefit students like Keiry and Jorge to have a version of it at high schools as well. Many poor and undocumented youth never make it to community college, let alone a university. Holding their hands while they’re still in high school might change that.

Children with every advantage in their corner—wealth, educated parents, prep school—get this treatment well before they learn the significance of college. Unprivileged youth, with no one to show them the ropes, deserve some guidance as they take the next, and arguably most critical, step in their lives.

The last names of the undocumented students have been omitted to protect their privacy.
Too often, students of color and students who face challenging circumstances don’t receive the support and encouragement they need to succeed. They are held to lower standards because of a Belief Gap between what society believes they can achieve and what they truly are capable of when we believe in them.

Visit to find out how to close the Belief Gap.

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Nadra Kareem Nittle

Nadra Kareem Nittle

Nadra Kareem Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She’s reported on education for the Los Angeles News Group, the Atlantic, EdSource and others.

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