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Aerial view of campus
Aerial view of campus

High school counselors serve key roles in the college planning process – they often advise students on degree options, financial aid, and career pathways. 

But some students may not be getting the help they need. Students who are DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) recipients, are undocumented, or live in mixed-status families often find that college planning is complex and challenging. Many counselors and school staff aren’t equipped with the information and resources they need to understand the impacts of immigration status on college admissions and degree attainment. 

In response to this growing community need, UNC Greensboro’s Dr. Laura Gonzalez has launched “So Much Potential,” a new website aimed at educating high school counselors and staff so that they can better support all students on the path to college. The website also serves as a resource for students and families who may not be aware of their options. Some aspects of the website are specific to North Carolina, such as community organizations and local contacts. Other resources are relevant to any student in the United States.

Gonzalez received a 2019-20 North Carolina Campus Compact Fellowship to develop the website. The associate professor of teacher education and higher education, whose research focuses on Latinx immigrant families and college access, spent last year interviewing students, families, school staff, and community advocates about their experiences.

“When I spoke with students, they told me that their counselors often had good intentions, but they didn’t always give advice that was specific and relevant to their situations,” Gonzalez explains. 

So Much Potential helps to dispel the many misconceptions about DACA and undocumented students and college. Some assume that students without a social security number (SSN) can’t attend college. However, there are no federal laws prohibiting the admission of undocumented immigrants to U.S. colleges, and schools aren’t required to report undocumented applicants or students to immigration officials. Admissions policies differ from state to state and among institutional types within a state – private, public, two-year, four-year. 

Another misconception is that students without a SSN can’t access financial aid. While completion of the FAFSA does require that a student have a SSN, there are private aid sources that do not. Students with DACA status may apply to receive a SSN, and, in turn, have access to more financial aid. 

In general, students with DACA tend to have greater access to higher education because of their “lawfully present” status. DACA students can apply to most public institutions; however, this access doesn’t guarantee in-state tuition or access to state financial aid. 

In North Carolina, DACA recipients and undocumented students may be admitted to public institutions if they graduated from a North Carolina high school. However, they cannot receive federal or state aid, and they must pay out-of-state tuition. As detailed on the So Much Potential website, each state controls the process through which DACA students apply for college, and state policies vary widely.

Dispelling misinformation and increasing opportunity are key goals of the website. It also offers bilingual college planning resources for school staff, students, and families. But perhaps the most impactful section of the website is the student stories

“This is a population that can often be treated negatively in the media,” Gonzalez said. “The personal narratives are really important to me because I want people to see these students as individuals who have aspirations and are working really hard against a lot of barriers. I hope these stories will move people’s hearts and motivate them to serve this population more effectively.”

“Jay,” a DACA recipient who earned his associate’s degree and now works as a nurse in North Carolina, shared his story:  “I was able to go to school. Now I’m contributing more to the economy – I was able to buy a vehicle, I was able to get a house. I know there are a lot of young people out there who want to go to school, but they just really can’t afford it with the out-of-state tuition problem. And if they can only allow us to go to school, I mean we don’t really ask for much, just let us go to school. We’ll pay for it – I’ve paid for my school. I mean, education changes everything, a career changes everything.”

Ultimately, Gonzalez hopes that, through this website, school staff, students, and families will find the support and the community that they need. 

“Counselors, you don’t have to figure it all out by yourselves. Families don’t have to travel this road alone. By pulling together all of these resources into a website, I hope that, as a community, we can help bolster these students and their progress.” 

Gonzalez partnered with Code to Dream to design the site in the spring. The website officially launched earlier this month. Learn more at somuchpotential.org

Story by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications
Photography by Grant Evan Gilliard, University Communications

 
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