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OPINION

The children of immigrants can help save higher ed

College applications have dropped precipitously during the coronavirus pandemic. The children of immigrants can change that.

Carlos Yalibat, a student at California State University, Northridge, whose parents are from Guatemala, in Los Angeles on Oct. 14.
Carlos Yalibat, a student at California State University, Northridge, whose parents are from Guatemala, in Los Angeles on Oct. 14.GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES/NYT

Every aspect of college life — from physical and mental health, to institutional finances and student debt, to instruction and student engagement — is deeply challenged by the coronavirus pandemic. Students of color have been disproportionately impacted, as evidenced by a steep drop in enrollment at Massachusetts community colleges among Black and Latino students. COVID-19 has troubling implications for the successful inroads we have made in diversifying our college population. Even before the pandemic created new barriers, enrollment was becoming an existential issue for colleges and universities, which are experiencing alarming declines in new applications due in part to a decades-long drop in birthrates.

The children of immigrants, however, are counteracting this trend. They are the fastest-growing sector of the child population and are projected to more than double in number between 2015 and 2035. A new study by the Migration Policy Institute shows these young people have been rapidly fueling the growth of the college population, accounting for 28 percent of all students. In Massachusetts, 34 percent of college students are of immigrant origin (either first- or second-generation).

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As a nation coming to terms with racial reckoning, our society needs to recognize that the majority of the children of immigrants are also subject to the undertow of systemic racism, which affects student access, success, and completion in higher education. Rising tides of xenophobia have created additional obstacles to social belonging through both negative social attitudes and enacted social policies. The majority of these immigrant-origin students are citizens (68 percent by birthright and another 16 through naturalization) with the same rights as their native-born peers. Yet their fates are tied to their families, who are at the mercy of ever-changing migration policies.

The good news is that the children of immigrants are doing their part to integrate with the larger American society. They are learning English and using education to make a muscular connection with the labor market. They demonstrate high levels of social responsibility and often take on work in the helping professions — indeed, many are at the forefront of the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research in the Commonwealth and the most comprehensive national study show that, when given the opportunity, immigrants will improve educational levels, occupational diversity, and revitalize communities.

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If we are to fully realize their potential, for themselves and the Commonwealth, we have much to do.

First, we must redouble efforts to recognize the advantages that flow from speaking more than one language and provide better support for English learners, who must receive four to seven years of high-quality instruction to reach parity with their monolingual native-English-speaking peers.

Second, we need to do a better job helping the children of immigrants navigate the currents and undertow they experience as they move from high school to higher education. We need to engineer better pathways to college. This requires a mindset that these students can and should be successful, as well as providing college access information early and consistently to students and their families.

Third, the Commonwealth should step up and provide fair financial access to our Dreamers, immigrants brought to the United States as children who have graduated from our high schools. Nineteen states, including some red and purple ones, have passed legislation for undocumented students who meet specific criteria — allowing them to pay in-state tuition (rather than international) at public colleges universities. We should do the same.

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A college education does many things. It provides economic opportunity and upward mobility, teaches students to coexist while respecting, articulating, and celebrating differences, and readies young adults for democratic citizenship, which is at the core of our Republic and, as we have seen in recent weeks, can never be taken for granted.

In helping immigrant-origin students integrate, we will not only ensure their flourishing but also that of the Commonwealth. As their share of the population continues to grow, their success is our success. By doing better by them, our higher education system and all that it touches will be the better for it.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston. Carola Suárez-Orozco is the founder of Re-Imagining Migration and a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.