Since the program’s implementation in 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients have endured numerous policy shifts. Under President Biden’s proposed American Families Plan, DACA recipients and Dreamers — those eligible for DACA status — are eligible for expanded opportunities to access higher education for the first time. 

President Obama established the DACA program to protect undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors from deportation and make them eligible for work permits. To qualify for DACA status, applicants must meet age, education or work requirements, and cannot have a conviction for a serious crime.

In a 2019 survey of Dreamers, more than 80 percent of respondents reported they were pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher. Dreamers enrolled in college are responsible for paying fees associated with their protected status — $495 per year to renew their status — and the costs associated with a college education. Dreamers are not currently eligible for federal student aid. Dreamers and DACA recipients are eligible for in-state tuition and some state-funded assistance in most states, but divergent laws and policies often limit their access to higher education. 

According to an analysis done by the Higher Ed Immigration Portal, there are currently just eight states — Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin —that prohibit undocumented immigrants, including Dreamers, from accessing state financial aid or in-state tuition. Eighteen states provide full access to in-state tuition and state financial aid. Many of the states with the most inclusive policies rank as the top states for undocumented students enrolled in universities: California, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

Biden’s American Families Plan would allow Dreamers to access federal student aid, in the form of Pell Grants, to attend colleges and universities in any state, regardless of state policy. The federal government awards Pell Grants to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial needs. Granting access to this new form of financial aid will expand opportunities for over 600,000 Dreamers and develop their ability to contribute to the U.S. economy. 

Dreamers are essential members of the workforce in areas such as technology and health care. A study by the Center for American Progress found that Dreamers pay billions of dollars in taxes each year and have over $24 billion in spending power combined. We can expect Dreamer’s spending power to grow with more access to higher education. Households headed by someone with a four-year degree have almost twice the median income of those led by someone with only a high school degree.

Data from Northeastern University (last accessed in May 2021)

Going on to achieve a doctorate degree can increase these benefits even more. Less than 30 percent of respondents to the 2019 survey report seeking a degree beyond a bachelor’s. Dreamers who earn advanced degrees can work in specialized, highly-skilled sectors including the health care system

Allowing Dreamers to obtain federal student aid in the form of Pell Grants will give many more people access to educational opportunities and will enable them to continue to work and live in our communities. This is an essential step in the right direction for the DACA program. 

Photo by Armin Rimoldi from Pexels