Posted on December 23, 2020

Immigration Questions on College Applications Were Causing Students to Panic. So Common App Is Changing.

Chris Quintana, USA Today, December 19, 2020

Applying for college can be one of the most stressful parts of a high schooler’s life. It entails hours of document wrangling, rewriting the same personal essay over and over and prepping for high-stakes tests.

For many immigrant students like Shavanah Ali, a college application can also feel like a risk to their personal safety. Ali’s mother had always told her to avoid mentioning her immigration status. She is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows her to stay in the U.S. despite arriving here illegally as a child.

But when applying for colleges, she was required to disclose this information to dozens of strangers. Any time she did, Ali worried she or a member of her family might find themselves in the middle of deportation.


Starting in fall 2021, the application used by more than 900 colleges will be revised, in hopes of being less unwelcoming toward students like Ali.

Officials behind the Common Application found students who had to answer questions about citizenship and immigration status were often less likely to finish their application.

Applications among U.S. citizens and international students have risen in recent years, while submissions among students who are undocumented declined 16% from 2016 to 2020. In fact, more than 300,000 students who started the application in the 2019-2020 admissions cycle but failed to submit it skipped the citizenship question.

The hope, Common Application officials said, is their changes may offer some relief.


Advocates say this is a step in the right direction, but they questioned how much difference the changes would make. Many institutions, like community colleges and universities with large numbers of Hispanic students, already have systems in place to enroll and serve students who are in the country illegally.


About 1 million students currently use the Common App, a streamlined form that allows students to apply to multiple colleges at the same time.

{snip} The nonprofit that runs it has started changing some of the more controversial portions. Most recently, the group culled a question that required applicants to share their discipline records in high school. Critics argued the query was more likely to affect students of color, particularly Black students. Officials also removed a question that would require veterans to explain their military discharge.

The questions that concern immigrants aren’t as simple to cut. While the group is still hammering out the final details, it has altered questions about legal citizenship, removed a prompt asking how long a student lived outside the country and emphasized some sections are optional, like the request for a Social Security number.

The Common Application also removed many questions about applicants’ family members, such as requests for their parents’ birth country and information about their siblings. And the new form will give students a chance to identify as DACA recipients, a first for the group.

Even with the changes, colleges can request additional information from applicants. But they’re not always clear in communicating that they won’t share the information or what they’re using it for.

The challenge, said Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and a former admissions officer, is colleges often have good reasons for wanting to know about their potential students’ legal status in the country.

It’s partially about financial support, he said. {snip} But some colleges are also required to submit this information to state and local officials.


It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of undocumented students enrolled in college. The figure is as high as 454,000, or about 2% of all college students, according to an April report from New American Economy and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. {snip}

Of those students, about half are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.