New Research Finds Few DACA Beneficiaries Pursuing Higher Education

By Preston Huennekens on November 2, 2018

An updated study by a Harvard University researcher again finds very mixed educational attainment for DACA recipients. Among the sampled population of DACA recipients, about 41 percent are enrolled in or have completed a college degree program and a nearly equal share, about 38 percent, have not advanced beyond high school.

The ultimate fate of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) remains in limbo. The Trump administration announced the end of new enrollments beginning in March 2017, but by the time the deadline arrived several court decisions mandated that USCIS continue processing existing applications. Currently, individuals who have or previously held DACA status can apply to renew it. But the legality of the Obama-era memo is itself shaky. My colleague Art Arthur reported that a Texas judge ruled that DACA is likely illegal, but held prior decisions in place. Advocates for DACA argue that its implementation led to widespread benefits for its recipients and for the U.S. economy, but research on the DACA population is scarce and often unreliable. One study widely touted by the media derived its data from an online survey distributed in part through Facebook.

My colleague Jessica Vaughan highlighted a study published in 2014 by Harvard researcher Roberto Gonzales. The 2014 Gonzales study was unique in that it sampled actual DACA recipients and measured the impact that DACA had on their lives. In her analysis, Vaughan noted that among Gonzales' sample, a full 20 percent had no education beyond high school and no plans to attend college. In his study, Gonzales noted that his sample was likely better educated than the total population of DACA recipients. While limited educational attainment should not necessarily disqualify an individual from benefiting from any potential future DACA-related amnesty, it is important to keep in mind that not all DACA recipients are the doctors and engineers highlighted by the media. There are unfortunately just as many examples of less exemplary DACA recipients, including many who become gang members and murderers. Understanding the actual demographic characteristics of the 700,000-plus DACA population is an important step in addressing their future in the United States.

To that end, Gonzales released an update to his 2014 study in August 2018, titled "(Un)Authorized Transitions: Illegality, DACA, and the Life Course". Published in the journal Research and Human Development, Gonzales interviewed 408 DACA recipients from six states — Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina, and New York. Each of the respondents arrived in the United States before the age of 15 and had at least one illegal alien parent. Over 60 percent of the respondents were women. Nearly 60 percent were over the age of 22. Almost 78 percent were Mexican nationals, and another 11 percent were from elsewhere in Central and South America.

In the 2014 study, Gonzales measured "Resources accessed since obtaining DACA", which marked how many recipients had started a new job, received a driver's license, obtained an internship, or opened a bank account thanks to receiving DACA status. The results were mixed — whereas 59 percent had obtained a new job, only 33 percent had opened a credit card and just 21 percent had obtained health care. The 2018 study does not include such data; only educational attainment is measured. The table below is reproduced from Gonzales' new report.

Educational Attainment N Percent
All 408 100.0%
B.A. or Higher 51 12.5%
Some College 220 53.9%
A) Enrolled in BA program 82 20.1%
B) Enrolled in Associates program 61 15.0%
C) received terminal Associate degree 17 4.2%
D) college dropouts 59 14.5%
HS/GED 100 24.5%
A) No post-secondary schooling 74 18.1%
B) enrolled in vocational program 26 6.4%
No Degree 37 9.1%
A) HS dropout, enrolled in GED course 20 4.9%
B) respondents still in HS 17 4.2%

This data reveals a continuing trend from the 2014 study. Even among a sample described by the lead researcher as better educated than the overall DACA population, widespread educational attainment beyond high school continues to evade many DACA recipients. The following subgroups are of particular interest:

  • College dropouts — 14.5 percent of the entire sample dropped out of college with no plans to continue their education.
  • No post-secondary schooling — 18.1 percent graduated high school, but did not go on to pursue a bachelor's or associate's degree.
  • H.S. dropout, enrolled in GED course — 4.9 percent of the sample dropped out of high school.

Those three subgroups constitute 37.5 percent of the entire sample. Using this filtering method, we see that 37.5 percent of these DACA recipients have not advanced beyond a high school degree. About 41.4 percent of the total sample is enrolled in an educational program beyond high school (vocational, associate, or bachelor's program), and close to 4.2 percent of the sample is still attending high school. But while 60 percent of the sample is over the age of 22, only 16.7 percent completed a bachelor's or associate's degree program.

DACA recipients do not have greater levels of educational attainment than the average American. After high school, they may even have less. Gonzales did not provide the oldest age reported in his sample. Researchers generally agree that the oldest DACA recipients would be in their 30s, so for this comparison I only included Census data for those aged 18-39.

According to figures in the Census Bureau's "Educational Attainment in the United States: 2017" report, 89.2 percent of Americans aged 18-39 have at least a high school degree. Among Gonzales' DACA sample, about 90.9 percent had completed high school — a difference of only about 1.7 points.

When it comes to college graduation, however, the difference between DACA recipients and Americans is profound. Only 12.5 percent of Gonzales' DACA sample had a bachelor's degree or higher, but 29.6 percent Americans in the same age range have a bachelor's degree or higher — a 17.1 percentage-point difference.

Further, this study also provides anecdotal signs that many recipients were preparing to leave the United States before DACA was implemented by the Obama administration. Stories include a 20-year-old living in South Carolina who was preparing to return to Mexico before the implementation of DACA. Another 19-year-old discussed living in Chicago as an illegal alien after his parents abandoned him and returned to Mexico. These cases suggest that the implementation of the DACA program to some degree interfered with the natural attrition of the illegal population.

One of DACA's purported principal achievements was the opening of educational opportunities to recipients who otherwise may not have been able to attend college. The Atlantic bemoaned the end of DACA as a detriment to higher education. The National Bureau of Economic Research argued that DACA had a "significant impact" on the educational decisions made by recipients. And while most news media coverage tends to highlight the positive success stories of some DACA recipients, the most recent data from Gonzales' interviews with actual DACA recipients shows that these accounts of high achievement among the DACA population are not the norm. As Congress continues to wrestle with what to do about DACA, it is important to remain informed as to the true demographic profile of this population, particularly with regard to educational attainment, and consider what the continuation of DACA would mean for the United States.