For generations, the used-car salesman has been an archetypal American scoundrel, but at least consumers usually got a car out of the deal. If two new reports from the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration are widely heeded, we may see college admissions officers supplant their chrome-peddling cousins in the pantheon of shame, at least in certain vulnerable communities. Many of higher ed’s new customers will walk away with nothing but debt.

The two reports, released August 2, consider the extent to which universities might make up projected enrollment shortfalls by enticing more legal and illegal immigrants to sign up. As has been widely noted, the U.S. faces a demographic cliff of college-age students as the Great Recession’s baby bust turns 18. The Presidents’ Alliance sees no reason why higher ed institutions shouldn’t balance their books on the backs of the nation’s newest arrivals.

“Undocumented Students in Higher Education” (henceforth, “Report A”) begins by establishing a numerical baseline. In 2021, approximately 408,000 illegal immigrants were enrolled in U.S. colleges. That high figure nevertheless represented a 4.2 percent decrease from 2019. For “Report B,” which focuses on all first- and second-generation immigrants, regardless of residency status, the most recent data are trending in the opposite direction. Such students represented 31 percent of all college students in 2021, a 20 percent increase since 2000.

Despite their different starting points, the two reports share a strikingly commoditizing attitude toward the student cohorts in question. “Without the increased arrivals of immigrant-origin students on U.S. college campuses,” Report B notes, “higher education’s present-day challenges would be far worse.” Immigrant students have “bolster[ed] the sustainability of many colleges and universities,” and enrollment growth among the immigrant population “vastly outpaced that of students from U.S.-born families . . . between 2000 and 2021.”

Though Report A is subtler and generally cloaks its students-as-financial-assets perspective in the language of social justice, it sees “increased college enrollment” as one of the primary reasons to improve “undocumented” students’ access to higher education. Taken together, the reports are more cynical still. Report B’s nod to the “economic potential of immigrant-origin students” feels purely kindhearted, until one pairs it with Report A’s note that DACA-eligible individuals have, after taxes, “$16.1 billion to spend at local businesses.” The implication? Colleges should get their hands on some of that money.

It will surprise no one to learn that the Presidents’ Alliance has race in mind as well as dollars. For the reports’ writers, immigrant students are useful not only as potential tuition-payers but as tools for achieving cosmetic diversity in the wake of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and UNC. Report A, again the more restrained of the two, reminds colleges that “undocumented students are a heterogenous population in higher education.” Report B connects the dots: now that the Supreme Court has made affirmative action in university admissions far more difficult, “colleges will need to look more closely at their prospective students if they intend to maintain their commitment to serving diverse communities.” Immigrant status, as both reports prove with a wide array of charts, is a handy proxy for skin color.

But so what if universities profit from an increased immigrant presence on campus? Won’t the newly recruited students benefit, as well? Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that colleges are being asked to bring aboard cohorts of students who will struggle academically and drop out to a disproportionate extent. It is thus not only a curiosity but also an omission of convenience that neither report makes mention of “preparedness,” “graduation rates,” or “debt.” The goal, it bears repeating, is industry survival, not humanitarianism. Too close a study of outcomes might dissuade ethical institutions from going forward with the plan.

While it is surprisingly difficult to find reliable debt and dropout numbers for immigrant undergraduates, outcomes can be predicted if one uses the same racial shortcuts that the two reports employ. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the four-year postsecondary graduation rate for Hispanic students is 32 percent, a full nine points below the overall rate of 41. For black students, the relevant number is a mere 21 percent. This matters in the context of the recommendations of the Presidents’ Alliance because, as Report B is at some pains to demonstrate, Hispanics and blacks make up the majority of the immigrant-origin student community. To recruit immigrants to campus is knowingly to enroll students who will graduate at lower-than-average rates.

And what about debt? As the Education Data Initiative recently established, Hispanics ($239), blacks ($250), and Asians ($240) tend to carry a higher monthly student-debt burden than their white peers ($201). Though it is nearly impossible to find information about the student-debt loads of illegal immigrants, it should be noted that such students are ineligible for federally backed student aid and must often finance their educations with private loans, which tend to have higher interest rates.

Again, it would be better if the numbers presented here concerned legal and illegal immigrants, specifically. In the absence of such figures, however, we must make do with broader race-based data, from which we can draw reasonable (if imperfect) conclusions. Nor is it sufficient to argue that these poor outcomes are “racist” and must be fixed. To an extent, they may well be the result of biases, and we should certainly strive to address them. But the Presidents’ Alliance has sent its recommendations into the world as it currently exists. If colleges up their recruitment of immigrant-origin students, they will be doing so in America, not Utopia.

Consequently, it is difficult to read the organization’s new reports as anything other than a naked cash grab undertaken in the name of self-preservation. The irony, of course, is that by loading immigrants with debt in exchange for a degree that they may not finish, universities are effecting a perverse form of assimilation: some college, lots of debt, no degree. What could be more American than that?

Photo: nirat/iStock


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