Students from disadvantaged communities often perform worse in school than kids with more resources, scoring lower on tests and recording worse grades and higher dropout rates. While they face a range of hurdles—access to high-quality education among them—would offering them incentives to attend school help shrink the education gap? Research by Southern Methodist University’s Elira Kuka, Dartmouth College’s Na’ama Shenhav, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Kevin Shih suggests it could.
The researchers looked at how a specific group of disadvantaged youth in the United States—those without legal documentation—reacted to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which contained incentives to attend high school and graduate. From 2012 to 2017, DACA provided work authorization and deferral from deportation for youth who met the criteria for age and year of arrival—and who were in or had completed high school. This relief from deportation, though temporary, was to be renewable every two years.
Kuka, Shenhav, and Shih used three data sources—the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, and the California High School Exit Exam from California’s Department of Education—to track DACA-eligible youth, along with a control group, from 2005 to 2015. The sources include information about education, employment, year of immigration, citizenship status, test scores, and even sexual behaviors for high schoolers. (The researchers inferred legal status by proxying it with the absence of citizenship.)
DACA had a significant impact on the schooling, work, and fertility decisions of undocumented youth, the researchers find. From 2005 to 2011, the school attendance trajectories of documented and undocumented Hispanic youth closely followed each other, but with foreign-born Hispanic teens who were citizens consistently having a 4-percentage-point-higher attendance rate than their undocumented counterparts. After DACA’s implementation, this achievement gap was cut in half.
With DACA in place, among undocumented youth, the high-school graduation rate increased by 15 percent, while teenage births declined by 45 percent. To put this in context, the results suggest that more than 49,000 additional Hispanic youth graduated from high school because of DACA. The effects on the high-school completion rate were four times as large for men, who are most at risk for deportation. College attendance increased by 25 percent among women.
The data also show an overall decline in idleness, or time spent on neither work nor school, as recorded in the ACS. While they acquired more schooling, high-school-aged undocumented youth also worked more, reducing the likelihood of being idle by 45 to 60 percent.
Undocumented youth are willing to go to great lengths to obtain legal status, such as fulfilling education requirements, even if the duration of that status is uncertain, the researchers argue. “These new findings should inform the current debate on [US] immigration policy, which has until now ignored the role for a path to legalization in producing an educated immigrant workforce,” they write.