Penn GSE Researcher Weighs In on the Dream Act

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | jdisanto@upenn.edu | 215-898-4820October 7, 2011

What if there were 65,000 people in the United States who, despite successfully completing their secondary education, had no hope for the future? There are.

That is how many undocumented students graduate annually from U.S. high schools but cannot go to college, join the military or work, even if they graduated at the top of their classes.  Culturally, they’re American, having grown up in the U.S. and often having little attachment to their countries of birth.  Many of them are low-income and may not even have known they are undocumented immigrants until they applied for driver’s licenses, or college and discovered they lack necessary legal documentation.  

Laura Perna, a professor in the Penn Graduate School of Education who studies access and equity in higher education, has seen this sad story all too often.  She believes access to higher education is vital to these young people, and one way to achieve it is the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – the Dream Act.

“The challenges that are associated with paying out-of-state tuition and not being eligible for student financial aid really make higher education virtually impossible for this group of low-income students,” Perna says. “ These are young people who have been in our educational system for a large number of years, and they’re highly motivated.

“They’re interested in continuing to build their human capital and to become productive, working members of our society.  Without the Dream Act, we are denying them access to the opportunity to do that.”

Perna will be headed to New York on Oct. 27 for the College Board’s National Forum, where she will discuss the role of a selective research university in fostering college access and promoting the success of students from traditionally underrepresented groups.  She will talk about the need to improve college access and success among students from urban high schools, and she will discuss the reasons why a selective research university like Penn should play an active role in improving opportunities for these young people.

Dream Act supporters like Perna believe it is essential -- not only to those who would benefit from it directly but also to the entire nation because it would provide an opportunity for undocumented immigrant students to contribute even more to the country by utilizing their education and talents.

Perna says the Dream Act would produce substantial economic benefits to the country.  Through the additional education that people would be able to acquire, they would go on to obtain higher-paying jobs, thereby generating higher tax revenues.

“And, they would have more access to benefits through their employers, which would reduce their reliance on social-welfare programs,” she says, countering arguments heard from Dream Act opponents.

Perna recently hosted a conference, “Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America: The Policy, Practice and Research Issues,” to explore the most effective institutional and public-policy strategies to be sure high school and college students and adult learners have the skills required for future employment. 

In order to reach the educational levels required for future jobs and international competitiveness, “We need to be doing a better job of educating everyone who is here – including undocumented immigrants.”

Perna is an expert in higher-education choice, affordability and financing, as well as federal and state involvement in pre-college and college education.  She’s studied barriers to education and the gaps in educational attainment that still exist, despite the substantial amount of money that’s spent every year by governments, colleges and universities, school districts, philanthropic organizations and others on programs designed to close those gaps.

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