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Can Administrative Burdens in the Admissions Process Hinder or Prevent Undocumented Students’ Access to Higher Education?



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Andres[1] is an undocumented immigrant excited to enroll in a community college to start his path toward a career. However, when searching information, trying to register online and approaching admissions office staff, Andres found that he had to address multiple paperwork requirements. Also, he realized that he could not provide some of the information requested, due to his undocumented status, such as Social Security Number (SSN), copy of passport, visa and driver’s license and tax forms, among other items. Even though Andres could benefit from In-State Resident Tuition (ISRT) that typically costs one-third to one-half less than Out-of-State Resident Tuition, he nonetheless could be deterred from completing his application due to these requirements and the more or less strict interpretations of them offered by members of the admissions staff at the institution of his choice. The application process for college admission is burdensome for everyone, but for undocumented students, that onus is higher and more distressing, and may prevent them from accessing higher education at all, even though 26 states grant undocumented students ISRT benefits.

This simple story illustrates the significance of administrative burdens to policy outcomes, a concern that public management scholarship has studied in recent decades. Administrative burden refers to an individual's experience of policy implementation that turns onerous (Burden et al. 2012). This inconvenience may arise as a result of a need to learn independently about policy benefits, to comply with a range of detailed rules or as the result of discretionary bureaucratic power (Moynihan et al., 2015). Diverse theoretical approaches, such as the Government Red Tape Theory (Bozeman, 1993) and Administrative Burdens framework, (Moynihan et al., 2015) have rightly assumed that excessive regulation, rigid conformity to formal rules or excessive or meaningless paperwork can undermine principles of efficiency, equity and inclusion in policy implementation (Bozeman and Anderson, 2016; Burden et al. 2012). Such administrative burdens are typically subtle and may vary with socio-economic and cognitive factors, as well as individual context, preferences and expectations.

Undocumented students, particularly, could experience significant psychological costs when applying for college and learning of the questions and process to which they would be subject. They are often in limbo because of the limitations on their rights imposed by the multitude of laws and policies governing them (Gonzales, 2007; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015). As Serna et al. have noted, “Undocumented students must rely upon policies adopted state-by-state or institution-by-institution to determine whether they can access higher education, benefit from ISRT, or obtain state level financial aid” (2014, p.4). Indeed, due to the confusing nature of state and institutional policies, some high school counselors and admission officers fail to deliver the most current information on higher education access for undocumented students (Pérez, 2010). In addition, learning administrative procedures and paperwork may be more onerous for undocumented students, since most of them are first-generation college students, have fewer resources and support networks and typically have less institutional knowledge of their rights and of higher education more generally than many of their U.S. born counterparts (Baum and Flores, 2011; Bettinger et al., 2012).

The level of burden certainly increases when an undocumented student must go to a college admissions office in person to drop off an application or for an interview. One could expect that undocumented students feel embarrassed and distressed about needing to provide evidence to explain their “undocumented status.”  They may feel insecure about talking with admissions staff members, whom they have no reason to trust and who could use their power to make their application process more difficult. Also, they may be fearful about revealing personal information that could be used against them or their families.  Additionally, some undocumented students have reported that they have experienced discrimination and prejudice by college admission officers, either due to ignorance or biases (Castro-Salazar and Bagley, 2010).

Understanding why administrative burdens are significant in college admissions processes across the states and how they may be reduced is essential for ensuring undocumented individuals access to higher education and the benefits of ISRT policy, when it is made available. In this regard, administrative burdens may de facto become policy instruments that reflect social constructions, restrict access to political and social rights, shape the way individuals interact with organizations and particularly and disproportionally affect disadvantaged groups, who are generally less well positioned to address them (Moynihan and Herd, 2010). This fact could explain why there is considerable variation in the admissions process across the states in terms of the administrative burdens placed on undocumented students. Clearly, political actors, including street-level bureaucrats, impose what they perceive to be an “appropriate level of burden” in the admissions process that varies with the dominant cultural assumptions in the various states. This fact suggests that how the admissions process is designed and implemented communicates messages to potential students about which individuals are "deserving" and "undeserving," irrespective of the specific provisions of applicable law or policy (Schneider and Ingram, 2005).

In the case of undocumented students, two possible constructions of their relative “deservingness” may be discerned in American politics. On the one hand, one narrative asserts that undocumented students reside in the United States in violation of federal immigration law and their presence therefore constitutes a threat to the nation’s order and internal security. In this view, these individuals do not deserve public benefits of any kind. On the other hand, a second narrative argues that undocumented students, such as “the Dreamers,”[2] should be viewed as victims of a parental decision to emigrate and to maintain them illegally in the United States, during which time they have contributed to society. This social construction makes providing this population public benefits, such as ISRT, much more politically acceptable (Reich and Barth, 2010). Given these contrasting views, advocates of ISRT benefits who contend that undocumented students are essentially innocents abroad are more apt to seek to reduce the administrative burdens they must address to obtain them. Opponents of this view, who see undocumented students simply as law violators, favor imposing heavier burdens on them in any application process. It is important to emphasize that imposing more onerous administrative requirements can also reinforce the social stigma often already attached to undocumented students.

These negative and positive constructions of undocumented students undoubtedly influence the ISRT policy outcome, and are likely to be reflected in the college admissions burdens that these students face in the application process. For instance, undocumented students located in states such as Florida and Texas (states that nominally offer ISRT to this group) must deal with an admissions form for community colleges that demands that they supply a notarized affidavit of intent to become a permanent resident, proof of residency, driver’s license as well as family income and tax form information simply to apply. One must wonder how an undocumented student who reads "Visa, Alien Card, And / Or Passport Required at Admission,” or “If you are not a U.S Citizen, you must present an actual resident alien card, if not a Visa status” reacts to such requirements. In short, regardless of the formal availability of college admission and tuition subsidy in these states, undocumented students must traverse an applications process that unmistakably suggests they are “undeserving” individuals.

Put plainly, most of this information should not be required because it has nothing to do with the ISRT policy benefit or applicants’ fitness for admission. Indeed, these requirements can be considered overly burdensome because the colleges do not need the information demanded to accept or grant the student acceptance with ISRT. Overall, for an undocumented student, presenting evidence of having lived during three consecutive years in a state and graduating from a high school within it is sufficient to meet the requirements imposed by the ISRT policies of those states granting the benefit (Amuedo-Dorantes and Sparber, 2012). There is no reason to require extra citizenship, driver’s license, residency documentation and tax forms. In this regard, community colleges located in Washington, New York, and Minnesota, among other states, have developed a less burdensome process; these institutions’ application forms do not inquire about SSN, citizenship, legal status or demand proof of residency. Also, the State University of New York (SUNY) system offers guidelines for undocumented students during an online chat during the admission process; this mechanism, too, can make the admissions process less burdensome for such applicants. Indeed, some research has found that requiring applicants, undocumented or not, to undergo face-to-face interviews with administrative staff may decrease applications (Wolfe and Scrivner, 2005).

            I have provided only a few examples of the administrative burdens that might prevent undocumented students from accessing higher education or the benefits nominally available to them in that process. This essay suggests that how states and institutions mediate equity and inclusion values in their admissions process for undocumented individuals is critical to policy outcomes. Unless those institutions now adopting the negative “lawbreaker” narrative to guide their application process take steps to reconsider the administrative burdens they are imposing on undocumented students hoping to continue their education by doing so, the United States will bear the costs of losing a substantial number of potential contributors to its economic and social development.


[1]  Andres is a pseudonym for a profile of a composite of undocumented immigrants. 

[2]  Analysts and many elected leaders have used the term “Dreamers” to describe individuals in the United States who were brought to the country at an early age without documentation, but who have assimilated to American culture and have been educated in U.S. schools.


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Andrea Briceno

Andrea Briceno M. is a Ph.D. Student in Public Administration and Public Affairs at the Center for Public Administration and Policy (CPAP), Virginia Tech. She received her Master’s degree in Government and Public Policy from the Externado University of Colombia in partnership with the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University, New York. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Economics from the National University of Colombia. Her research interests focus on higher education policy for undocumented students in the United States. As part of her research, Andrea has developed the Digital Research Collection of Higher Education Policy for Minority Students  The collection contains open-access resources that focus on policy analysis of access, educational attainment, socioeconomic barriers, and normative aspects of equity and inclusion for minority students.  Andrea is also one of the APPAM 2019 Equity and Inclusion's fellows. She enjoys spending time with her two little children, reading, discussing political issues, and drinking good coffee.  

Publication Date

September 5, 2019