Applying for college can be one of the most stressful parts of a high schooler’s life. It entails hours of document wrangling, rewriting the same personal essay over and over and prepping for high-stakes tests.
For many immigrant students like Shavanah Ali, a college application can also feel like a risk to their personal safety. Ali’s mother had always told her to avoid mentioning her immigration status. She is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows her to stay in the U.S. despite arriving here illegally as a child.
But when applying for colleges, she was required to disclose this information to dozens of strangers. Any time she did, Ali worried she or a member of her family might find themselves in the middle of deportation.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” said Ali, now a junior at the University of Maryland. “Being undocumented is really unpredictable.”
Starting in fall 2021, the application used by more than 900 colleges will be revised, in hopes of being less unwelcoming toward students like Ali.
Officials behind the Common Application found students who had to answer questions about citizenship and immigration status were often less likely to finish their application.
Applications among U.S. citizens and international students have risen in recent years, while submissions among students who are undocumented declined 16% from 2016 to 2020. In fact, more than 300,000 students who started the application in the 2019-2020 admissions cycle but failed to submit it skipped the citizenship question.
The hope, Common Application officials said, is their changes may offer some relief.
“We don’t want people selecting themselves out of the process because we’re asking questions they feel are putting themselves and their family in jeopardy,” said Jenny Rickard, the CEO of the organization.
Advocates say this is a step in the right direction, but they questioned how much difference the changes would make. Many institutions, like community colleges and universities with large numbers of Hispanic students, already have systems in place to enroll and serve students who are in the country illegally.
Changes in the Common App can’t fix the systemic issues facing undocumented students, said Sara Urquidez, executive director of Academic Success Program, a group that provides college counseling to high schools in Dallas, Texas. And she fears the changes may complicate the process.
“Just because you take it off the Common App doesn’t mean that the college still doesn’t need it and use it in a way,” she said. “So how are they going to find a way and a solution that doesn’t put more burden on a student and family?”
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What does a college need to know?
About 1 million students currently use the Common App, a streamlined form that allows students to apply to multiple colleges at the same time.
The application has been around since 1975, but gained wide acceptance in the past decade. The nonprofit that runs it has started changing some of the more controversial portions. Most recently, the group culled a question that required applicants to share their discipline records in high school. Critics argued the query was more likely to affect students of color, particularly Black students. Officials also removed a question that would require veterans to explain their military discharge.
The questions that concern immigrants aren’t as simple to cut. While the group is still hammering out the final details, it has altered questions about legal citizenship, removed a prompt asking how long a student lived outside the country and emphasized some sections are optional, like the request for a Social Security number.
The Common Application also removed many questions about applicants’ family members, such as requests for their parents’ birth country and information about their siblings. And the new form will give students a chance to identify as DACA recipients, a first for the group.
Even with the changes, colleges can request additional information from applicants. But they’re not always clear in communicating that they won’t share the information or what they’re using it for.
The challenge, said Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and a former admissions officer, is colleges often have good reasons for wanting to know about their potential students’ legal status in the country.
It’s partially about financial support, he said. Some colleges have the finances and resources to support these students, and other cash-strapped institutions may not. (Undocumented students don’t qualify for public financial aid available to citizens, like the Pell Grant or federal student loans.) But some colleges are also required to submit this information to state and local officials.
At the same time, he’s struck by data that show students abandon the application when faced with queries about their legal status.
“I realized, wow, we’re probably losing such a huge portion of students that could be in the pipeline for higher education,” Pérez said. “Is that equitable?”
Undocumented students in college despite barriers
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of undocumented students enrolled in college. The figure is as high as 454,000, or about 2% of all college students, according to an April report from New American Economy and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. That’s despite these students being inundated by misinformation about whether they’re even allowed to go to college, Urquidez said.
Of those students, about half are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“Undocumented students are present in post-secondary education despite the barriers,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance, a group of college leaders that advocate for immigrant education. “What more can we do if we lower the barriers?”
When Ali, the University of Maryland student, applied for college, her university asked for her mother’s tax filings.
“My mom’s potential fate of exposing herself as completely undocumented lay in my hands just because I wanted to get a higher education,” she said. “And it’s like, is it worth it to put her in this position?”
It’s already harder for undocumented students to attend college, even if they survive the application process. They don’t qualify for government aid via grants, loans or even work-study jobs. And while some institutions may offer private financial support to these students, they often work several jobs while attending college to pay for their education.
These students also were barred from using emergency aid from Congress during the pandemic, per guidance from President Donald Trump’s administration, even though higher education experts said Congress’ stimulus bill had no such limitations.
What’s more, many students’ immigration status has been in jeopardy in recent years. Trump’s administration tried to end DACA, only to lose in the Supreme Court this summer. Students have been more fearful to disclose their immigration status during his presidency, advocates say.
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'Signals of safety'
The Common App changes may have a downside for undocumented students, said Urquidez: “How do we help them get to institutions that are going to support them?”
For instance, California's Pomona College, which uses the Common App, is a highly selective and well-funded private college, which means they can admit students and offer them scholarships regardless of their need. That’s a huge boon for undocumented students who often struggle to pay for the cost of college.
Pomona publicizes information about the admissions process for undocumented studentsbecause students are wary of outing themselves to staff, said Adam Sapp, director of admissions.
And during the financial aid process, Pomona includes a specialized financial aid form for undocumented students alongside the traditional federal form for financial aid. Those are, Sapp said, “signals of safety” to undocumented students — and, Ali said, they would have worked for her.
Ali remembers a time when any questions about federal financial aid would have caused her to walk away from an application. She said she knew wasn’t eligible for it, so why waste her time. If an application made it clear she didn’t have to enter that information?
“I wouldn’t have had that panic attack.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Common App changes college application to aid DACA, immigrant students