In 2001, Texas became the first state in the U.S. to provide in-state tuition rates and state-funded financial aid for qualifying undocumented students seeking to pursue higher education. Eight years later, after graduating from high school in Kerrville as an undocumented student, I benefited from the tuition equity bill (Texas SB 1403, SB 1528). Once I learned that qualifying undocumented students, like myself, were afforded with these financial and educational opportunities, I allowed myself to continue dreaming one academic year at a time.

Benefiting from this tuition equity bill facilitated the completion of my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Schreiner University and the University of Texas at San Antonio respectively. Research has shown that equity tuition bills help reduce high school dropouts and teen pregnancy rates, as well as increase the likelihood of high school graduation and enrollment rates at postsecondary institutions among undocumented students. Unfortunately, the implementation of such bills does not always translate into utilization or even awareness. 

In a chapter I co-authored with Harvard University sociologist Roberto G. Gonzales in A Better Future: The Role of Higher Education for Displaced and Marginalized People (currently in press), we explore the experiences of three undocumented immigrant youth in Texas who enter adult transitions at differing levels of educational attainment. While all three participants’ educational experiences differ, their narratives exhibit several commonalities: insufficient academic and institutional support and inadequate information about financial options available to them, such as those afforded by the equity tuition bills since 2001. 

For example, when asked whether she was benefiting from such policies, Haley, a senior at a university in Corpus Christi, revealed she didn’t know about the policies and asked where she could find information about them. 

“I am trying to find financial aid for my last semester, and this whole time I was told I couldn’t [fill out the financial aid form], but was never told I could do this,” she said.

Haley’s narrative illuminates the unwelcoming contexts undocumented students in Texas navigate and their experiences in doing so. Almost two decades after the implementation of the first equity tuition bill in Texas, many undocumented students are often still cautioned about restrictions on their access rather than reminded of their entitlements. 

The stories of our respondents resonate with students in some of the Alamo Community Colleges. During recent ally trainings at the Dreamer Resource Center, I was made aware that undocumented students at Alamo Community Colleges have faced additional and unnecessary scrutiny of their immigration status. As a result, they have been either turned away until they can obtain a student visa – which is impossible for them given their personal and immigration circumstances – or they have been asked to request certain immigration benefits from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for which they do not qualify.

More importantly, as the law is written, there is no need for postsecondary institutions to look beyond the basic criteria for Texas residency based on high school graduation. This continued failure to advance and improve the support needed by undocumented students in Texas deprives this population from benefits they are entitled to as well as puts them at risk of being placed in immigration proceedings.

The experiences that undocumented youth encounter in Texas are distinctive. Although many can benefit from this equity tuition bill, the implementation of the Texas SB 4 – an anti-immigrant bill that allows for police departments to engage in immigration enforcement – and an ever-increasing exclusionary rhetoric rooted in racism, threaten the educational trajectories and lives of undocumented youth in many ways. 

Many caring educators, like Viridiana Carrizales from ImmSchools and educational institutions like the University of Texas at San Antonio have stepped up to support undocumented youth as they navigate the educational system. Yet, we are still in dire need of more individuals and institutions committed to the profession rather than political beliefs.

As educators and administrators, we might not have all the answers available when approached by an undocumented student. However, that does not mean that we erect an additional barrier to information that continues to prevent undocumented youth from testing the boundaries of their immigration status.

Carlos Aguilar is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). His research centers on issues related to undocumented youth in particularly harsh contexts. As an undocumented...