Should Dreamers be encouraged to go to graduate school? No.

I am currently working on a side project, Graduate School for Dreamers. I am chronicling the many differing policies that universities have in regards to ‘Dreamers’, illegal aliens brought to the United States as children.  A few universities, such as the University of New Mexico or the University of California, Santa Cruz have their policies towards Dreamers in their admissions instructions. Others on the other hand…

I am not working on the project out of pure altruism – I hope to apply to doctoral programs in the upcoming fall and need to acquire the information for myself anyway.  Nonetheless I suspect fellow Dreamers will find my project and presume that I am encouraging them to attend graduate school. To the contrary though I don’t think Dreamers (or most people) should be encouraged to go to graduate school. I worry that the Dreamer movement in general has made education a goal in itself and there are few willing to make the case against it.

Graduate school takes several years to complete. In my field (Economics) I have heard of people who have managed to complete their doctoral studies in four years or less, but for many other fields I know the average length is closer to seven to ten years. That is a large amount of time to spend in school without the promise of a job at the end. Payment during the course of a graduate program is low – with stipends somewhere around 10~20 thousand. has a directory with admission results and stipend information for those interested in how much they can expect to get in funding.

Graduate school is not like undergraduate studies – there isn’t a clear pathway and you need to be self motivated to stay on top of things. In this area Dreamers actually have an advantage over their peers since they had to be learn this skill during their undergraduate studies. In recent years there has been an increase in institutional support for Dreamers, but for the most part they are still on their own in navigating academia.

Anyone who is willing to do graduate studies knowing all of this, regardless of migrant status, has to be crazy.

For Dreamers the reality of the situation is even worse. Most graduate students have some hope that at the end of their servitude they might be able to get a tenure track professorship. Can any Dreamer seriously hope to acquire a teaching position anywhere in the United States? Back in 2011 the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about ‘Jorge’, one of the few Dreamers to have earned a PhD, and his struggle to make use of it. Spoiler: he is not employed in academia.

Ever since the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program things have improved for Dreamers. They can now apply for work authorization in two year increments. DACA is far from perfect though – I learned this when I applied to renew my work permit last year. I was quickly approved, but my physical work permit was lost in the mail. I had to re-apply and am still waiting to hear back. In the meantime I am unable to be a teaching assistant. I may very well complete my degree without having gained any experience actually teaching others, to say nothing about my financial situation. I’m fortunate to have family to fall back on, but what about other Dreamers?

I cannot in good conscience encourage Dreamers to enter graduate study knowing they might very well find themselves unexpectedly unable to work. Worse, what do you do when you finish? How many Dreamers are genuinely fine with leaving the United States and, given the inadmissibility bars, likely never returning?

Professional graduate degrees are little better. Does anyone remember Sergio Garcia? He is the Dreamer who fought to be admitted to the California Law Bar and eventually won. If you google him though its unclear if he actually practices. Despite being admitted into the bar he couldn’t be hired by any existing firm and had to form his own office. The webpage for his firm seems to be dead at time of writing. He seems to be making his living at the moment as an inspirational speaker.

The only success story I can think of is  Alfredo Quiñones, John Hopkins brain surgeon and even that is a stretch. Quinones is a Dreamer in spirit, but it seems he had legal status (and eventually citizenship) by the time he started medical school. Furthermore he came to the United States at the age of 18, not an adult but not really a child.

I hope that I have made it clear that I do not encourage most people (especially not Dreamers) to attend graduate school. The cost is simply too high and the chance for reward is small.

I can only encourage graduate school to those Dreamers who, like me, wish to ultimately become an academic overseas. Few American schools will be willing to hire, let alone as tenure-track, Dreamers for the foreseeable future. A few professional graduate degrees might be worth it, but as noted above I’d be extremely skeptical.

If my warning falls on deaf ears though I hope my project helps those ears find graduate programs that will at least entertain an admissions application.


Further Reading:

Grad Skool Rulz by Fabio Rojas (occasional Open Borders: The Case blogger)

Especially rule #20 (rules for students of color), #17 (all in the family), and #9 (don’t pay for grad school).

Michelangelo Landgrave is an economics graduate student at California State University, Long Beach.

2 thoughts on “Should Dreamers be encouraged to go to graduate school? No.”

  1. If you’re open to moving (and if you’re looking at grad school you should be), I’d strongly encourage you to consider a Canadian school if you can possibly get a study permit.

    Even going for a non-doctoral program can work, a graduate of any postsecondary program can get a post-graduation work permit for up to the length of that program (or 3 years, whichever is shorter). And after one year of work in Canada, you can apply for permanency under the Canadian Experience Class.

    I don’t know if being out of status in the US would disqualify you from a Canadian study permit, but if it wouldn’t, this might be a really good option for you.

    1. Pardon the late reply.

      I am open to moving myself, but I find that many Dreamers who wish to enter graduate studies not only wish to remain in the US to study but seem to think they can realistically get a TT job here as well.

      I am also concerned that many seem to want to be ‘activist scholars’ as opposed to, well, scholars.

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