One Way Maryland Can Better Support Undocumented Students in Higher Education

Blog Post
Nov. 4, 2021

When it comes to providing an affordable public higher education to undocumented students, few states compare to Maryland.  The state allows eligible undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at any state college and university. And since 2019, the state has allowed eligible Maryland students, including those who are undocumented, to attend community college tuition-free under its Community College Promise Scholarship Program. This scholarship program is especially beneficial because undocumented students often start out at community colleges to attain their higher education because of their lower costs and closeness to home. However, despite Maryland providing this access, barriers still exist in the state that limit undocumented students from fully benefitting from their higher education credentials. Case in point: Maryland bars undocumented students from obtaining professional licenses.

Constraints such as those Maryland imposes on undocumented students seeking professional licenses, are sadly the reality of many undocumented students. A new research article  by Federick Ngo, University of Nevada, Las Vegas assistant professor, and Juanita K. Hinojosa, doctoral candidate at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, shows that even in those states that give access to in-state tuition and state financial aid, not all policies guarantee undocumented students a sense of security or full accessibility to the benefits of the credentials they are seeking or have earned. For example, undocumented students are also barred from being able to apply for on-campus federal work study, or work in certain internship programs that require legal status. Dr. Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales, associate professor of leadership studies at University of San Francisco, describes these types of limitations as  “constrained inclusion.” Even though undocumented students can get access to affordable higher education, there are some constraints due to their status that prevents them from enjoying the full benefits available to other students.

Maryland is not the only state that bars undocumented immigrants from obtaining professional licenses. In fact, most states have similar prohibitions. These state bans are largely the result of legislation that the U.S. Congress approved in 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). This legislation prohibits undocumented immigrants from obtaining professional or occupational licenses unless individual states pass their own legislation that allow access. Only five states— California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, and New Jersey —provide full access to all undocumented immigrants to obtain professional licenses, and 12 other states provide limited accessibility. Since the majority of all professional licenses are given at state and local levels, Maryland has the jurisdiction and authority to change course and allow undocumented students to obtain professional licenses.  

Almost one in four jobs require some sort of license to practice in the U.S., and in Maryland almost 40% of the population hold jobs that require occupational licenses. It is inconsistent to limit specific licenses from undocumented students if the actual operation of that profession does not require citizenship. In the past, undocumented Marylanders could work in few jobs that required licenses as long as they had a tax ID number, but these jobs are often lower-paid and have few pathways to accelerate in the field. For example, an undocumented student could go through a community college program and obtain a certified nursing assistant (CNA) license with a tax ID, but recently Maryland has now barred students with just a tax ID from obtaining CNA’s. So if they had CNA licenses in the past and desire to renew their CNA license or advance their education and obtain a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) license in Maryland, they have to first obtain a social security number, which is challenging for some undocumented students to get. In addition to this, CNA’s can start working at a salary of $33K, whereas DNP’s can start working at a salary of $128K. Given that most undocumented students are already low-income, policies such as these perpetuate existing inequities in higher education outcomes.

At a time when labor shortages continue to increase across Maryland and community colleges are seeing the greatest enrollment declines because of the pandemic, barring undocumented students from occupational licenses further compounds both problems. The U.S. is home to more than 427,000 undocumented students enrolled in higher education and roughly 10,000 of these students reside in Maryland. Most undocumented students who graduate from college pursue fields that require licensure in some degree. If they are barred from practicing in Maryland, they can move to one of the five states that allow them to, such as California, which offers professional licenses to anyone who completes the necessary training and meets other state licensing requirements, regardless of immigration status. Therefore, keeping the prohibition in place would be counterproductive, as it would hurt the growth of Maryland communities and resources, and make it much more difficult for undocumented students—who are just like any other Marylanders— to achieve upward mobility.

While Maryland should be applauded for making public higher education, and especially community colleges, much more affordable for undocumented students, the state must remove the legal obstacles that bar undocumented students from gaining meaningful employment upon graduation. The time has come for Maryland to better support undocumented students by creating a legislative pathway for them to obtain all categories of professional and occupational licenses.

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Higher Education Access and Affordability