Research Summary

The research team, which was composed of immigrants of various immigration statuses, was interested in identifying effective and sustainable institutional practices for addressing the barriers undocumented students face navigating higher education. We defined Undocumented Student Resource Centers as physical structures on campus designated as centers that provide a space for undocumented students and students of mixed-status families to obtain institutionalized support. Performing a network analysis of undocumented student support services across institutions of higher education, we identified 58 USRCs that met our inclusion criteria. We contacted center personnel via phone and email and conducted in-depth interviews with students, staff, and faculty coordinating the work of these centers on 49 of the campuses identified.


Among more than 4,000 colleges and universities across the United States, we identified only 58 USRCs, most of which were located in the California higher education systems. Other states, including Washington, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Colorado, and New Jersey, had at least one institution with a designated USRC. Out of the 58 USRCs identified, 30 were on four-year institutions, while the remaining 28 were on two-year colleges. Additionally, only one USRC was situated within a private institution. Forty-nine of the aforementioned 58 USRCs participated in this study.

Our first research brief summarizes the USRC’s emergence, structure, services, and resources, staffing and responsibilities, the benefits of USRC’s for students and institutions.

“It would have not happened without student activism engagement. It would have not happened without our leaders being brave saying, ‘We want to go beyond the status quo; to do something that aligns more with our moral compass of justice and aligns with risk aversion.’ It took student leaders to push the envelope and for our campus leaders to be willing to receive that and say, ‘You know what? This is the right thing to do. This is the ethical thing to do. And more importantly this is the just thing to do.’”
— USRC practitioner at a four-year institution

Structure, Services, and Resources

Approaches to USRCs vary by context and are reflective of an institution’s capacity, resources, population size, and organizational structure. For example, while most USRCs operate as standalone centers with specialized staff dedicated to undocumented students, others have been merged with multicultural student centers or offices for international students and use existing staff as de facto undocumented student specialists. What has been consistent about each of these models, however, is that institutional support for undocumented students is clearly defined and promoted. USRCs often create and sustain an extensive campus referral network and are able to provide customized support via partnerships both on- and off-campus. Given the breadth of services, it is not uncommon to see counselors, academic advisors, financial aid officers, and attorneys (among others) hold regularly scheduled office hours within USRCs. The following provides a list of services typically provided by USRCs:

  • Academic Advising

  • Counseling

  • Financial Aid

  • Career Counseling

  • Transfer Services

  • Legal Services

  • UndocuAlly Training

  • Lending Library/Book Vouchers

  • Lending Technology

  • Emergency Grants

  • Food Pantry/Meal Vouchers

  • Parking Permit/Bus Passes

  • Scholarships

  • Work-study

  • Internships

  • Mentorship


There are several benefits to the development of USRCs at institutions of higher education. At the top of the list is the way USRCs help students feel. Visible support structures help students feel welcomed and supported. Such spaces provide students with an opportunity to form a community among similarly situated others. Being able to interact with individuals (both students and staff) with similar experiences empowers students to feel more comfortable asking for help. USRCs helps validate students’ experiences and procure a sense of belonging, thereby enhancing their educational outcomes.

“You know I always go back to the first semester that we were in the new space. You know, when the students were coming in. I remember this one quote from this student as simple, as clear as it is, I think it’s so powerful. The quote was, you know they said, ‘wow, we are legit now.’ That always stuck with me... I think it does a lot for the sense of belonging. Thinking and feeling this is your university and that your university, in some shape or form is committed to you and your identity…to who you are and to your family. While we still have a way to go, I think it does something for a lot of our students and even our staff and faculty…”
— USRC practitioner at a four-year institution

Additionally, by allocating services and resources, USRCs not only help attract students to the institution, but also help students see options to persist. USRCs signal an institution’s prioritization of inclusive excellence and help formalize institutional supports that affirm its status as an undocu-friendly campus. By centralizing undocumented student services, USRCs help practitioners intentionally work with undocumented students and intervene when necessary. By tracking students and providing resources, USRCs are able to assist students from admissions to graduation, thereby improving persistence, retention, and graduation rates.

“If you provide resources to students and help them along the way,
then they will continue to go—also building a better reputation for your
institution. I know that there is sometimes the conversation about, ‘oh,
we are worried about getting more students. We are not retaining our
students.’ Right? If you help these students, you know, they themselves
will do the outreach. They will tell other people where the resources are
and to come. Building that relationship is definitely beneficial not just
to the students but also to the institution as well.”
— -USRC practitioner at a two-year institution

Implications for Policy and Practice

The findings of this report yield several implications for policymakers. Recognizing the role of policymakers in driving national conversations and local implications for undocumented student success, the following recommendations include implications for developing and supporting USRCs

  1. Expand the creation of USRCs to institutions within states with high shares of the total immigrant population (e.g., TX, CA, NY, NJ, NV, FL)

  2. Develop USRCs at institutions that extend higher education benefits to undocumented immigrants (e.g., TX, CA, NM, OR, WA, MN, CT)

  3. Cultivate a USRC network

  4. Increase funding for undocumented student services

The findings discussed in this report offer several implications for institutions with existing and emerging USRCs. These recommendations are also applicable to higher education practitioners at institutions where undocumented students are enrolled:

  1. Center the voices of undocumented students Institutions must include undocumented students’ voices through the process of establishing USRCs

  2. Leverage campus and community partnerships Institutions should consider the role campus and community partnerships play in the success of USRCs

  3. Make a long-term investment in USRCs USRCs epitomize educational interventions embedding long-term support for undocumented students as a matter of inclusive excellence.

  4. Assess institutional context, capacity, and organizational structure USRC models vary by institutional context, capacity, and organizational structure

  5. Increase the capacity of USRC practitioners

  6. Develop sustainable funding opportunities Institutions have funded USRCs through various approaches

  7. Engage allies Institutions may consider

“A lot of people in student affairs come to us and ask ‘how can we help?’ which sometimes is not that most helpful thing to say, right? What we find most helpful is when people come to us with ideas. For example, when [one department] came and was like, ‘can we organize a 5k to raise funds for undocumented students? Would that be helpful?’ Yes. You know, [another department], ‘can we host an immigration Know Your Rights workshop where we invite local immigration attorneys? Would that be helpful?’ Yes! So, when people come to us with ideas, that is the most incredible thing because we already have so much on our plate that coming up with stuff for people to do takes a lot of energy and mental capacity and time. What we have learned, being in this institution, is that when people come to us with ideas, that is magic!”
— USRC practitioner at a four-year institution