Why ‘Dreamers’ are less likely to drop out of high school

If students believe they’re education will pay off, they may be more likely to continue with it.

Enacting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, increased high school graduation rates among undocumented immigrants by 15% and college enrollment rates by 20%. That’s according to a study by economists at Dartmouth College, Southern Methodist University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research on Monday.

DACA provides work authorization and deferral of deportation for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. In addition to eligibility requirements surrounding the age at which undocumented immigrants came to the U.S., DACA also has an education requirement — that immigrants be in school, completed high school or a GED program (unless they’re a veteran).

“You’ve given them a huge carrot to stay in school,” said Na’ama Shenhav, an economics professor at Dartmouth and one of the authors of the study. The opportunity for protection from deportation allows students to envision a possible return on their education that wasn’t available before. “For a population that previously was experiencing very low incentives to stay in school, this could have substantially re-oriented their perception of opportunities,” Shenhav said.

The findings come as the future of the DACA program remains in limbo. Last month, Senate Democrats tried to push Republicans to address immigration by briefly shutting down the government. After some dealing, Senators are scheduled to debate immigration this week, but DACA’s fate still remains unclear. Nearly 800,000 immigrants have received protection from deportation since the program was enacted in 2012.

Supporters of the program have argued that it’s worth protecting DACA recipients, not just on moral grounds, but also because it could help the economy. The study published this week offers more nuance to that argument. To find the results, the researchers compared the outcomes of young people eligible for DACA to legal immigrants with similar characteristics in the years leading up to and following the establishment of DACA.

“We highlight a really substantial implication of the policy for building an educated immigrant population,” Shenhav said. “When we provide legal status it really provides an incentive for individuals to stay in school.”

Though the study is focused specifically on the effects of DACA, it has broader implications for policymakers interested in encouraging students to stay in school, Shenhav said. The results suggest that students are more motivated to continue when they can see clearly that their education will pay off.

“When we’re thinking about building a pipeline of more educated individuals we need to be thinking about what kind of employment opportunities are there once you complete school,” she said.

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