Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California


UCLA Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUCLA

California Dreaming: Latino/a Undocumented Student College Choices


Undocumented students, lacking United States residency or citizenship, select colleges annually. These students navigate a college application process in California whereby they prove AB 540 residency, take standardized exams, and attend competitive four-year universities without a social security number, a driver's license, or federal financial aid. A total of 20 Latino/a undocumented students and nine faculty or staff were surveyed and interviewed at three postsecondary institution types: Universities of California, California State Universities, and California private universities. This study examined the critical transition from high school to college and applied Laura Perna's college access and choice conceptual model to undocumented college students and explored the social, cultural, and economic resources that provided the conditions enabling their successful navigation through the college choice process.

Participating Latino/a undocumented college students shared similar beginnings. They each migrated to the United States before the age of 13 from Mexico or El Salvador and enrolled, attended, and graduated from local elementary and secondary schools. Students and their parent(s) value education as a means of validation and social mobility, yet the access to a CSU, a UC, or a private university depended primarily on financial aid and secondarily on the information made available to them by counselors, teachers, and organizations facilitating college access. Students with the greatest access to information at every level of Perna's model, from the external legal policy to their community applied to the greatest number of colleges and had the greatest financial resources throughout their college decision-making process.

Chain migration theory informed the application of Perna's model. Individuals and institutions through every contextual level could potentially inform the college decision process for undocumented students, yet available resources varied by institution type. Conferences, document review, and student and faculty staff surveys and interviews corroborated that public colleges have greater transparency about the application process for AB 540 students, and currently have easier access to financial aid information after the passage of AB 130 and 131. Some private colleges have over 20 full scholarships available to undocumented students, yet allies at the colleges and knowledge of such financial aid must be identified in advance to motivate undocumented students to apply. Students identified links in their respective chains for the colleges to which they applied and attended. Families and communities provided the support and motivation to succeed academically in elementary school, but links were vital to connect students to resources throughout high school and to college. The links came from teachers, programs like Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) or the Boys and Girls Club, and most importantly from organized undocumented student groups. Such groups provide inspiration and information regarding college access to their peers, but also demonstrate through example the ability and potential to access postsecondary education. This study informs practice at the policy, university, secondary, and elementary levels to improve college access for students regardless of legal status, regardless of nation of origin, and regardless of state of residency.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View