Here’s How DACA Court Decisions Could Impact College Students

The future of approximately 58,000 'Dreamers' in college may be in doubt after a recent court case found the program unlawful.
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Updated on September 15, 2023
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  • A Texas court decision puts the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in doubt.
  • DACA recipients are commonly referred to as "Dreamers," based on never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act.
  • Legal experts expect the case to work its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Higher education advocacy groups have called on Congress to codify DACA into law.

The future of some 58,000 college-going "Dreamers" is in doubt, leaving questions about their educational futures.

Judge Andrew Hanen of the Southern District of Texas ruled Tuesday that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is unlawful. This decision does not mean that current DACA recipients will lose their status or their ability to renew, but instead it upholds the policy that forbids the federal government from approving new DACA applications.

However, experts BestColleges spoke with previously expect forthcoming decisions and appeals will likely send the case to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide DACA's future.

Higher education advocacy groups called on Congress to pass permanent protections. In the meantime, college students who are DACA recipients are closely following whether they may soon lose their ability to live and work in the U.S.

A June analysis from found that of the 580,000 current DACA recipients, less than 10% are currently enrolled in college. About half (48%) of all DACA recipients have at least some college education.

Here are some of the most pressing questions for DACA recipients, commonly referred to as "Dreamers," based on never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act:

Are There Immediate Risks for DACA Recipients?

Currently, the status quo remains.

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director of the Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic at Penn State University, said during a 2022 webinar hosted by the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration that nothing changed for DACA recipients immediately after the 5th Circuit Court’s ruling in 2022, which sent the case back to the Southern District of Texas.

“College students who are DACA recipients are closely following whether they may soon lose their ability to live and work in the U.S.”
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Current recipients may continue to reapply to remain in DACA, but the program is not accepting new enrollees.

Wadhia added that this means DACA recipients may continue to access other things available under the program.

For example, recipients who plan to leave the country may still apply for advanced parole. This would allow them to reenter the U.S. if Customs approves the travel in advance.

Future court decisions may change the status quo, however. Previous rulings acknowledged how many people rely on DACA, hence allowing current recipients to continue to reapply for deferred action. It is not guaranteed that this will remain through future decisions.

Legal experts expect the case will eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

What Would Happen to Students if DACA Was Revoked?

DACA offers two primary benefits: protection from deportation and the ability to legally work in the U.S.

Without DACA, students are at risk of deportation. Legal experts don't believe President Joe Biden's administration would prioritize deporting "Dreamers," so deportation may only occur in select cases.

Sarah Spreitzer, assistant vice president at the American Council on Education (ACE), told BestColleges that she worries many college students may choose to leave the U.S. if they lose their legal status. Doing so would allow them to apply for a student visa, but the timeframe for when — or if — they can return would be uncertain.

"If the Supreme Court were to strike down DACA and make that action immediate," she said, "it would be the worst possible scenario for DACA students currently enrolled in college."

A student visa is not the only option.

Victor Nieblas, a practicing immigration lawyer and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), told BestColleges that some students could be eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) if they are from one of the 15 qualifying countries. Some abuse survivors may also be eligible for U Nonimmigrant Status (a U visa).

Lastly, because the average DACA recipient is about 29 years old, marriage may be on the table for many recipients, Nieblas said. Marrying a U.S. citizen would allow students to apply for permanent residence.

Nieblas recommends that DACA recipients meet with an immigration attorney or a reputable immigration authority. Colleges and universities may have their own immigration offices they can consult.

Can 'Dreamers' Continue Their Studies?

Gaby Pacheco, director of advocacy and policy at TheDream.US, told BestColleges that work authorization has been vital in allowing "Dreamers" to afford to go to U.S. colleges and universities.

While it's not a requirement to attend, many must work while enrolled to afford school since less than half of states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition and even fewer allow them to access state financial aid.

The following states offer state financial aid to students regardless of their immigration status, according to the National Immigrant Law Center:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • The District of Columbia

If work authorization disappears, college becomes less financially feasible.

There are, however, some scholarships designated for DACA recipients or those with Temporary Protected Status, Pacheco said. This, combined with the ability to access financial aid in some states, means students may continue their studies.

It's already a reality for most undocumented college students.

Miriam Feldblum, co-founder and executive director of the Presidents' Alliance, said during the webinar that less than half of undocumented college students are DACA recipients.

How Might Internships Be Affected?

Internships are an important part of the college experience for many students, and DACA allows thousands of students the chance to pursue paid internships each year.

Without DACA and the work authorization it grants, this may become complicated.

Nieblas said it's likely that the effects wouldn't be immediate if a higher court struck down DACA as unlawful. Work authorization may continue until it expires for each individual, which happens every two years in the case of DACA.

Still, the Supreme Court could choose to end work authorization immediately if and when it reviews the case.

The end of DACA may also affect a student's chance at unpaid internships. Pacheco explained that another benefit of the program is it grants the ability to apply for a Social Security number. Many internship opportunities require a background check that uses a student's Social Security number.

"Without DACA, those opportunities start to close, and it becomes very difficult for a college student to complete their degrees," Pacheco said.

Is There Anything Institutions Can Do?

Currently, many institutions plan to use their lobbying arms to push Congress to codify DACA into law, thus protecting the program from the will of the courts.

Additionally, experts told BestColleges that students should check to see if their school has an immigration office. Pacheco said these are common within immigrant-friendly states and often have lawyers who can walk students through their options.

Colleges and universities may also offer a refuge for undocumented students and graduates if DACA were to dissolve.

Hiroshi Motomura, faculty co-director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles' School of Law, said during the Presidents' Alliance webinar that federal work authorization rules don't apply to state governments in most areas. That means public universities may be able to hire undocumented workers, or potentially offer internships to undocumented students.

What Alternatives Might DACA Students Have?

A primary concern among many experts isn't how the end of DACA would impact a student's studies but, instead, their motivation to get a degree.

Without work authorization, many students may not see the same value in a degree because certain fields would seem off-limits. Undocumented people without DACA can, however, still work as independent contractors or business owners in the U.S., so there will be opportunities for work.

"What's really going to happen is what happened when there wasn't DACA. People had to try to figure out ways that they can work without work authorization and be flexible with their degrees," Pacheco said. "It just becomes a lot harder."

Even working as an independent contractor presents obstacles.

For example, some careers require licenses and periodic exams. Pacheco said people often need a Social Security number to attain or keep a license, so without DACA, they may be unable to work in specific fields as independent contractors.