Higher Education Research

Our Higher Education Access research addresses the ability of members of society to attend and receive fair treatment at institutions of higher education. In short, our vision is for a country where all capable individuals have access to the highest levels of education at which they can benefit and for a nation where more of our future citizens are prepared to contribute to our social, civic and economic prosperity.

Math Teaching Assisting StudentThroughout the past decade, and especially in the past few years, immigration reform has grown increasingly visible on the national stage.  Politicians have grappled with one another on whether or not to pass the DREAM Act, employers struggle to find laborers, and students seek to continue their education – each of these situations is complicated when a person is undocumented.

In 2007 the National Forum, in cooperation with a wide range of partners across the country, launched a national effort to focus attention on educational opportunities for Latino, immigrant and undocumented students, with a particular emphasis on the educational gaps created by inconsistent federal, state and institutional policies.


Our efforts over the ensuing years have led us to adopt a goal and set of tested assumptions that we believe are important to our “model of change”.

  • Our overarching goal is to ensure that Latino, immigrant and undocumented students have the opportunity to receive a college education.
  • Consistent with this goal, we are committed to the passage of appropriate federal and state laws that pave the way for access, success and full participation. This is not a partisan commitment, but a reflection of our core professional values and relates directly to our beliefs of the public good for our country.
  • For purposes of strategy we assume that informed public policy will eventually create a framework for leaders to follow, but recognize that favorable legislation, isolated from other changes, will not completely address the challenge of educating Latino, immigrant, or undocumented students; just as court cases, civil rights laws, or affirmative action programs have not previously eliminated systematic barriers to opportunity.
  • We believe that the problems associated with access for immigrants of all backgrounds and the low level of Latino graduation rates from both high school and college are closely related and result in part from inconsistencies across institutions and political jurisdictions, uncertainties in practice, mixed or unclear messages sent to Latino students and families, and by a polarized public discourse.


In 2008, the American Council on Education (ACE) featured the National Forum’s work on immigration and higher education as a “nationally significant” approach. ACE cited the National Forum’s distinctive strategy of building tactical networks to influence policy at multiple levels (institutional, state and national) and cultivating political will needed to redefine educational opportunity for Latino, immigrant and undocumented students as a fundamental civil rights issue. The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), as well as other leading professional associations have also recognized our leadership on this issue.


Recent Research

Our current work focuses on identifying, addressing, and influencing those conditions necessary to support inclusive policies and practices that are critical to opening access to more Latino, immigrant and undocumented students in more institutions across the country. We intend to build public will and fulfill our strategy of creating a sphere of influence to increase educational attainment levels by encouraging practices consistent with educational values and public good, aligning policies and encouraging leadership that supports access, identifying and responding to barriers, and bridging national networks with coordinated strategies and activities designed to increase educational access and success. 

Our objective is to reinvigorate commitment within higher education institutions to assert strategic leadership around national issues related to diversity and inclusion.  Several years of our research, bridging a number of discrete studies, which have investigated patterns in institutional practices determining access to higher education for undocumented students, has shown that university leaders are increasingly unwilling to take risks to support diversity and inclusion on their campuses.  Survey and case studies suggest that this trend is partially explained by the ways in which administrators understand and manage risk.

We believe that by tailoring information to higher education administrators who are positioned in a small set of identified administrative roles, we will influence decision structures in their institutions and, over time, amplify colleges and universities’ collective capacities to assert leadership in issues related to inclusion, diversity and opportunity.


Past Publications

In March 2013, we completed a study entitled “Examining the Financial Resilience of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) as They Prepare to Serve the Next Generation of Latino Students” with generous support from Examining the Financial Resilience of HSIs coverthe Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation (TG). We conducted our analyses of revenues and expenditures at the end of a decade (1999-2009) during which colleges and universities experienced enormous financial challenges and just as the national economy was starting to recover from historic disruption. This vantage point allowed us to examine how various institutions mediated fiscal constraints and study their attempts to maintain focus on investments in student achievement and educational priorities. Given the changes in student populations anticipated into the future, we were especially interested in studying how institutions that serve first generation Latino students managed under difficult circumstances over the last decade and to see how well situated they might be for the important challenges that lie ahead.

Prior to this work, the National Forum completed the report (funded by TG) Reconciling Federal, State and Institutional Policies Determining Educational Access For Undocumented Students: Implications for Professional Practicein 2011, which reported on our investigation of the ways in which colleges and universities make decisions regarding educational access for immigrant and undocumented students.

To our knowledge, the study outlined in this report represents the first systematic nationwide examination of institutional policies targeting undocumented students.  The report offers a comprehensive description of the characteristics of the undocumented population and their underrepresentation in higher education.  It summarizes the current state policies that regulate the access to education for undocumented students and examines a range of factors that might influence institutional decisions regarding undocumented students.  It offers a novel theoretical framework to understand how institutions navigate the complexity of this issue, and presents a sophisticated analysis of original survey data, collected from individuals in the vortex of this issue, about institutional policies on undocumented students.  Most importantly, the report offers insights and recommendations to educators and practitioners on how to increase their ability to serve undocumented students better and facilitate their access to higher education.

Policies_for_Undocumented_Student_Access coverMuch of our work on immigrant and undocumented students in higher education has stemmed from an article written by Noe Ortega, a senior Research Associate at the National Forum, that was published in The Journal of Hispanic Higher Education,“The Role of Higher Education Associations in Shaping Policy that Connects Immigration to Educational Opportunity:  A Social Capital Framework.”

This particular study utilized social capital theory to examine the collective agency available to national higher education associations and better understand the power of the collectivity to influence policy.  The analysis drew on a specific issue, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, and investigated letters and statements submitted by associations to members of Congress in support of this policy between 2006 and 2009.  The findings suggested that characteristics unique to this community enhance their ability to influence educational policy.

For more information on other past publications, please see our Forum Publications page.


Past Research Initiatives

Past research from all of our projects can be found in the Past Projects page.