The Future of the Children of Immigrants: A Study of Latino Higher Education Aspirations and Abilities

Ariel Giovanni Ruiz Soto
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This study examines the higher education aspirations and abilities, as well as outcomes, of young Latino children of immigrants. I aim to answer the following questions: How do various factors related to immigration affect Latino high school students’ personal aspirations and practical abilities to go on to higher education? What are the determining factors, with respect to immigration, that motivate Latino students to achieve academic success? In turn, how do factors related to immigration influence students’ levels of achievement and their participation in college preparatory activities? Finally, what policies and practices to promote Latino college enrollment should be enacted, given the impact of immigration-related factors on Latino students’ academic potential?

Methods: I conducted 24 face-to-face semi- standardized interviews with documented and undocumented Walla Walla High School (WWHS) Latino students as well as parents. WWHS, located in Walla Walla, Washington, has a Latino student body of approximately 34 percent in a county where Latinos make up about 19 percent of the local population. WWHS’s Latino student population growth and its proximity to Walla Walla Farm Labor Camp – a source of migrant labor – present model demographics to test the foregoing questions of the study. Most importantly, WWHS students offered a fruitful group of children of immigrants with astounding descriptions of immigration-related factors in and outside the school.

Findings: All fifteen student participants, regardless of their legal status, aspired to go to a college or university. All of the parents shared the same aspirations for their children, regardless whether the child was documented or undocumented. All of the students understood key concepts for college admission as: good grades, sports, community service or other extracurricular activities. However, although their aspirations are high, their achievement and abilities do not match their aspirations. A potential reason for the lack of conversion from aspiration to abilities is in part due to their parents’ low pre-immigration human, social and cultural capital. Without the academic help available at home, the student participants rely on outside sources, like teachers, to obtain the knowledge they need for a higher education. However, this does not mean that parents do not motivate or help their children otherwise. Parents and students frequently expressed parental support through parents’ self-sacrifice at work; Latino parents bestow upon their children motivation to never stop working and aspiring for the dream of an education.

Another immigration-related factor that I find affects both the aspirations and abilities of Latino high school students move on to higher education is the mode of incorporation – the reception by a host society for an immigrant group. I find that both students and parents feel marginalized at school and at work respectively due to the initial lower-working class segment of society that immigrant parents assimilated into. Thus, directly and indirectly, parent and student marginalization hinders their access to sources of human, social and cultural capital necessary for a higher education.

However, the most evident immigration-related factor that affects WWHS’s children of immigrants’ personal aspirations and practical ability, with regard to higher education, is undocumented status. On the one hand, immigrant children – undocumented children – are denied federal financial aid to support their higher education which limits the ability to enroll in college. As a byproduct, governmental restrictions on aid also decrease the aspirations of three of the five undocumented students in the study. On the other hand, documented students are also impacted by the status of their parents: students who reported to have an undocumented parent, have a lower GPA than students who have documented parents. Lastly, fear of deportation affects the aspirations of all children of immigrants. While participants do not directly connect deportation and lower educational aspirations, their narratives express that deportation is psychological and emotional distress that distracts participants from their aspirations and thus limits their abilities to go to college.


  • Federal, state and city governments should implement college-ready programs that specifically target Latino immigrant parents’ low levels of human, social and cultural capital beginning at the pre-school and elementary schools.
  • Scholars must rearticulate the current definition of cultural capital to include and value ‘the immigrant drive’ and minority cultural knowledge.
  • The federal government should stop nationwide immigration raids, at least until a fair and comprehensive immigration reform with a path of legalization is passed by Congress.
  • Washington State should implement a progressive and conscious effort to advertise and promote Washington State House Bill 1079 at all public schools and beginning at the elementary schools.
  • Washington State legislature must pass a bill similar to H.B. 1706 (introduced January 2009) that allows undocumented students to be eligible for existing state need-based financial aid.
  • Congress should pass the DREAM Act: a federal legislation that would give qualified undocumented students a path toward legalization and financial opportunities.
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