"There's still going to be a challenge for these students to pursue higher education," said Deborah Santiago, co-founder and vice president for policy and research of Excelencia in Education. "I don't think the numbers are going to be high."
Children who are illegal immigrants have been guaranteed the right to a K-12 education since the 1982 Plyler v. Doe Supreme Court decision.
A growing number of those students are now entering adolescence and early adulthood. They speak English, are part of after-school clubs and sports, and have the same aspirations to attend college as their peers. Yet around the age of 16, they stop having the same opportunities. When most teens get a driver's license, a first job and start thinking about college, illegal immigrant students start to become aware of their status.
"They stay stuck while their friends are moving forward," said Roberto Gonzales, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. "And that has tremendous implications on their own ability to achieve any upward mobility, on issues of self-esteem and on emotional and mental well-being."
The Plyler v. Doe ruling did not address higher education. Rather, individual states and colleges have set their own policies on whether to allow illegal immigrants to attend.
Among illegal immigrants who are high school graduates between the ages of 18 to 24, 49 percent are in or have attended some college, compared with 76 percent of legal immigrants and 71 percent of U.S.-born residents, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study of 2008 census data.
Jane Slater, who teaches English as a second language at a high school in Redwood City, Calif., said fewer than half of the students who are illegal immigrants at her school go to college.