Twenty-five high school graduation ceremonies in 17 days. That was the schedule for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark when we spoke last June during our State of the South road trip. That’s a lot of caps and gowns, a lot of inspirational aphorisms, and a lot of valedictorians, salutatorians, and top academic performers to meet and recognize. Like Charlotte’s population growth, many of those high performing students are also Hispanic. And many are undocumented; they arrived in North Carolina as young children and, as Clark noted, represent the success of CMS pre-K and ESL programs. Indeed, the graduation of these students reflects a national trend: the recent decrease in the high school dropout rate has been driven by Hispanic students. Nine times as many finish as drop out, even as the proportion of students who are Hispanic has risen. (Note: the dropout rate for this group of students is still higher than that of other racial or ethnic groups, but it’s also dropping faster.) But for undocumented students, progress becomes much more difficult after high school, even with a stellar academic record.
A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) details the challenges facing these students and some options for building the necessary infrastructure of opportunity to help them reach their potential. CAP estimates that approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from American high schools each year; these successes are related to Federal policy that secures K-12 education access regardless of immigration status, but these policies do not extend to higher education. This leads to legal, social, and economic challenges for young people who aspire to continue their education; they face barriers to identifying education options, enrolling, and paying tuition.
Some of those high school graduates are included in the increasingly diverse population of 15-24 year olds in the South.
While 15 states have changed residency requirements to secure in-state tuition rates for undocumented students, Texas is the only Southern state to take this step. That’s not because there aren’t undocumented students in the region. In fact, as the CAP report notes, the top three states with the fastest growing undocumented populations are in the South: North Carolina, Georgia, and Arkansas. Growth of this population has been more than 200 percent or higher over the past 20 years; none of these states have public in-state tuition options for undocumented students. These young people are ineligible for federal financial aid and in Alabama and South Carolina, undocumented students cannot be admitted to public higher education institutions.
Deputy Superintendent Clark has seen this growth in CMS classrooms and saw the implications of blocked postsecondary progress at all those spring graduations: “This is a tidal wave coming for us. These are students that our city, state, and country are going to lose. We’ll lose a brain trust and have a whole other level of poverty.” Despite ranking 7th on Forbes Best for Business list out of the largest 100 US metros, Charlotte ranks 98th on mobility—meaning a young person born in Charlotte is less likely to move up the income ladder as an adult than in almost any other large US metro. Referencing these data, Clark said “These [mobility] stats are just going to get worse unless we change something.”
For now, Ann Clark plans to try to find support for individual students, but she and others are hoping to create a response that addresses the scope of the challenge facing undocumented students who are ready to continue their education and contribute to their families, local economies, and communities.