Immigration Reform: Community Colleges Must Be Ready
By Dr. M. Eduardo Marti
I could have been an undocumented immigrant.
In 1960, I escaped Cuba in fear of political repercussion. At the time of this, the most momentous decision of my life, I was an impetuous 19 year-old, ready to fight in the counter-revolution. My parents wisely asked me to leave the country for a month, to cool off. Since I had the good fortune of already having a valid US tourist visa and the Cuban Government exit permit, my exile began uneventfully. I simply got an airplane ticket and left, never to return.
When I arrived in Miami, an immigration officer asked me some pointed questions about my intentions. He quickly ascertained that if I went back to Cuba, my life could be in danger. He offered me political asylum. If it was not because of this specific US policy toward Cubans, I would have become an undocumented immigrant because it did not take me long to realize that it would be folly for me to join one of the many groups talking about fighting Castro. My visa would have expired and I would have stayed as an undocumented immigrant. I could not return.
I can only imagine what today’s undocumented immigrants go through. Leaving your country, your friends, and your family behind, getting to know a new country with different language, customs and laws is never easy. On top of this, undocumented immigrants are forced to live in the shadows, constantly afraid of being reported to the authorities or totally under the influence of an employer. When immigration reform is finally enacted, millions of children of undocumented immigrants, most likely, will be able to access higher education and some form of financial aid. The smart ones will go to selective independent colleges with scholarships, others will attend state colleges but the majority will go to a community college.
After WWII, when millions of veterans returned with GI Bills in hand and overwhelmed the universities, the Truman Commission of 1947 called on community colleges to receive the returning veterans. After the Higher Education Act of 1965 was passed and members of ethnic minorities and the poor were able to use Federal Financial Aid to go to college, and the universities were, once again overwhelmed, the number of community colleges mushroomed and welcomed this new population of students.
It is in the public interest to graduate as many previously undocumented immigrants as it is possible. Community colleges should closely examine the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) developed by CUNY as a good way to serve this new population of at-risk students. Effective academic and student support services have proven to have an impact on retention and graduation rates.
At the heart of the ASAP is an enhancement of academic and student support services. Although not all previously undocumented students may be able to attend full-time, some of the elements of the ASAP program may be adopted by many community colleges.
Extended orientation programs have a significant impact on retention. Tutoring is another way to ensure student persistence. Peer tutoring, especially if performed by another previously undocumented student, can be a very powerful retention tool. Not only do the students get academic help but also, while being tutored, they can get informal counseling on how to survive the college experience.
Colleges nationwide must emulate CUNY, SUNY and other systems that have clearly stated policies for a smooth transition from community college to the baccalaureate-granting colleges. For the independent colleges that depend on articulation agreements for transfer, regional clearinghouses could be established that will enable easy access to transfer agreements and, then, students can tailor their course of study to maximize the transfer of credits.
The benefits to society extend beyond the fiscal considerations. Educated populations generally attract more businesses; communities tend to be safer and healthier. This contributes to a better quality of life for all the members of the community. It simply makes sense to educate the largest possible number of people. Let us prepare community colleges to embrace previously undocumented immigrants by having programs that increase graduation rates. #
Dr. Eduardo Marti, former Vice Chancellor for Community Colleges at CUNY, President Emeritus, Queensborough Community College, serves as Trustee at Teachers College and the Council for Aid to Education. Most recently, he served on NY Governor Cuomo’s Commission on Reform of Education.