Ghosts You Can See - The Impact of the California Budget Crisis on AB 540 Students

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         David S. McCabe, the Coordinator of the Teacher Preparation Program and Assistant Professor of Education at Pasadena City College, has been an educator in Southern California for over eighteen years.  During his career, he has served students in his community as a substitute custodian, instructional assistant, elementary school teacher, assistant principal, principal, staff developer, and social activist.  Author of several articles and invited speaker at numerous regional and international conferences, David has dedicated his career to supporting administrators, teachers, students, and parents in developing democratic classroom communities.
            David lives with his wife and son and a menagerie of animals on their small ranch in Southern California. His area of interests includes Special, General, and Bilingual Education, and Philosophy of Education.

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David S. McCabe, the Coordinator of the Teacher Preparation Program and Assistan

AB 540 Students make up a growing part of our student population and contribute to the richness of our campus and community at large.  The economic downturn has impacted them in a way that is disproportionately greater then that of our citizen students.  AB 540 students are often invisible, and many college faculty and administrators are unaware of the hardships that these students endure to attend classes and transfer to four-year colleges and universities. This article highlights some of those hardships and offers recommendations that community colleges can implement to provide assistance to our  AB 540 students.


Approximately 2.8 million students will graduate from U.S. high schools this year.  Some will join the military, others will enter the workforce, and in the state of California, many will seek out the promise that the state legislature made with its children in the Donahoe Education Act of 1960, and go on to college.  However, approximately 26,000 California high school graduates will face daunting obstacles barring the path to higher education and the opportunity live out their American story, because they bear the inherited title of undocumented immigrant. 

In his work Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam (2000) surveys the decline of "social capital" in the United States of America since 1950. This decline in civil engagement he argues undermines the foundations necessary for a strong democracy. Putnam describes specific examples in which Americans have disengaged from civic involvement including decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, serving on committees and working with political parties. Putnam uses bowling as a metaphor to support his argument. He indicates that although the number of people who bowl has increased in the last 20 years, the number of people who bowl in leagues has actually decreased. Putnam contends that since people bowl alone they do not participate in social interaction and the civic discussions that might occur in a league environment.
In contrast to U.S. born citizens, who appear to be increasingly disengaging from civic involvement, are the young people who reside in the shadows of contemporary American Society. These students are students just like everyone else, however the test of a nine-digit social security number indicating their formal U.S citizenship status is an assessment that they cannot pass because they do not possess one. These immigrant students’ marginal citizenship status eliminates all options for receiving federal financial aid to support the costs associated with higher education.  Until recently, these students were forced to pay out of state tuition to attend college, even though they may have resided in California since kindergarten.   Some relief came to undocumented students on October 12, 2001 when Governor Gray Davis signed Assembly Bill 540 (AB 540) into law, which removed the non-resident tuition requirement from immigrant students who graduated from a California high school and attended a high school within the state for at least three years.  This has made the path to higher education a possibility for qualified undocumented students (AB 540 students).  However, the bill offers no financial aid or monetary support to AB 540 students who wish to pursue higher education, even those who have distinguished themselves with exemplary grade point averages . 

The lack of access to financial aid and institutional support from school officials leaves many struggling AB 540 students with feelings of loss and hopelessness. While citizen students are concerned over whether or not financial aid will be able to cover their tuition, books, living expenses and the cost of their entire Study Abroad experience, AB 540 students at community colleges are worried about where they will pull together the resources to make it through the spring semester and transfer to a four year institution in the fall so that they may continue the path to a collegiate graduation.

The cuts to funding and the increase in tuition at the UC’s and the CSU’s are about to make those feelings of loss and hopelessness for AB 540 students transferring seem insurmountable.  Most AB 540 students and their families lack the financial resources to cover college expenses and the current restrictions to financial assistance means that an increase in tuition translates into working more and having less time to focus on school.  These circumstances force many AB 540 students to take some time off from their studies and ultimately prolong and in some cases, terminates their dreams of receiving a college degree. 

As the Coordinator of the Teacher Preparation Program at Pasadena City College and one of the faculty advisors for an AB540 student support group, I encounter daily undocumented students who live on the fringe of American society yet present a compelling contrast to Putnam’s decline of Social Capital in America.  I have spent a great deal of time getting to know my students and hearing their stories and  becoming familiar with the obstacles that they face and the things that give them the strength, the motivation and the hope to overcome those obstacles.  These, bright, ambitious young people have a strong desire to give back to their schools, their community and this country that they feel has given them so much.   Yet, as AB 540 students they find themselves occupying space like ghosts. 

In Ghosts You Can See: Interviews With Undocumented College Students (Spring 2009 - see ),  I interviewed several AB 540 community college students.  Each of these students graduated from the community college system with academic honors, and transferred to their respective UC and CSU campuses in the spring of 2009.  In spite of their accomplishments, all of them feel as though they are neither recognized as individuals with the rights and responsibilities that accompany American citizenship, nor do they feel a connection with the Motherland from which their parents migrated.  One student confided that even though she is a young adult attending college, she feels trapped in childhood because she cannot celebrate the same independence that other students her age take for granted, such as having a job and driving a car.  AB 540 students often feel subjected to a perpetual state of dependence upon others.  Yet these students push forward, contradicting the assertion of Michael Jonas (2007) that diversity somehow “damages civic life”.  Many of these students not only excel academically in school, but they immerse themselves in volunteer work in their community in an effort to attain their personal goals of a better life and to earn a title beyond that of “illegal”.  This “participation in public life” is what Alexis de Tocqueville (Mayer, 1975) credited to the success of Democracy in America, and to witness it as an active part of your students lives is enough the fill any educator with humility and pride.

Sadly, three of the students interviewed have had to take off time from their studies this year so that they can work to save enough to pay their college expenses.  Each plans on returning to their studies in the fall.

The students who come to me each year and confide their citizenship status are the very kind of individuals that we want as U.S. citizens.  They are bright, compassionate, confident, and embody the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-boot-straps work ethic that Horatio Alger (1868) celebrated in his writings.   As college faculty and administrators, we do not have the power to grant these individuals citizenship, however, we can advocate for them.  We can advocate for our students by contacting our members of Congress and encourage them to pass legislation for immigration reform. We can advocate for our students by making them aware of scholarships available that do not have a citizenship or residency requirement.  We can advocate within our own institutions to educate our faculty and make them aware of the circumstances facing undocumented students.  We can advocate by encouraging the development of more scholarships and financial resources that are AB 540 student friendly.  We must have the collective will to do what is necessary to support our AB 540 students during these difficult financial times so that their talent and their ambition is not wasted.
Alger, H. (1986). Ragged Dick and Struggling Upward. (1868 and 1890). (C. Bode, Ed.). United States: Penguin Books.
Mayer, J. P. (Ed.) (1975). Democracy in America. (G. Lawrence, Trans.) Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
McCabe, D. S. (Spring, 2009). Ghosts You Can See: Interviews With Undocumented College Students from
Jonas, M. (2007August 5). The downside of diversity: A Harvard political scientist finds that diversity hurts civic life. What happens when a liberal scholar unearths an inconvenient truth? The Boston Globe, pp. C3.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster,