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.