Ashley Rivas-Triana is 22 years old and faces an uncertain future. Her high-school diploma is not good enough to compete in the current U.S. job market, and she can’t go to college in her state because she is undocumented. Last month, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld a Board of Regents rule that all students be “lawfully present” to attend schools in the University System of Georgia and that those seeking in-state tuition be “legally in this state.” All of which means that when each one of her friends, with whom she attended kindergarten through high school in Georgia, graduated and went to college, Rivas-Triana was left behind. “It’s definitely upsetting to me having been living in the state my whole life and expecting something when you get older—expecting to go to college,” she says.
Most states have no public-college restrictions on undocumented students. In fact, state officials across the country say that, in order to be competitive, they need all the educated young people—documented or undocumented—they can get. That’s because by 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the United States will require some sort of postsecondary degree or training beyond a high-school education, according to the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. With 2.1 million undocumented, college-aged young people throughout the United States, the only way to reach that 65 percent mark may be to provide greater access to higher education. What’s more, by denying undocumented immigrants educational opportunities, they remain trapped in a kind of permanent underclass—unable to get jobs that require training beyond a high-school diploma. “You have a population of young people who can drive to low-wage jobs, but be denied higher education,” says Laura Emiko Soltis, executive director of Freedom University. “They are a captive low-wage labor force.”