According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate every year from high school. But too many of them are thwarted from pursuing higher education because they don’t qualify for federal student aid.
In 2008, Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca was one of those teenage students. She came to the U.S. with her family when she was four, studied diligently, and dreamed of getting a degree as a first-generation college graduate. But without a Social Security number, she was ineligible for government assistance and felt “hopeless and lost.”
After working at cash-only jobs to pay for some college classes, then dropping out to support her family, she was able to obtain a social security number under the DACA program and was named a Champion of Change by the White House. In 2015, she won the Voto Latino Innovators Challenge to solve a community problem with technology.
Drawing on her painful experience of being turned away from college, she came up with DREAMer’s Roadmap, an app that helps DACA students find scholarship money for higher education. She won first place, received $100,000 in prize money to build the app, and launched on April 13, 2016.
With DREAMer’s Roadmap, undocumented students can find accurate information on financial aid available across the country in one easy-to-use mobile app—something that Salamanca wishes she had had when applying to college, instead of having to go through cumbersome lists of scholarships one at a time. “Everything is accessible to anyone who has a smartphone. All the information is now at their fingertips,” she says.
While DREAMer’s Roadmap obviously helps high school seniors plan their college career, Salamanca says that colleges and universities can benefit directly from those choices in many ways:
- With greater ease and access to sources of money, DACA students will have more choices about where to attend, making them a sought-after demographic at higher ed institutions.
- With DACA students enrolling in higher numbers, colleges will get more diversity in their student body, creating a richer learning community and bringing new perspectives to campus.
- First-generation college students will also bring with them the energy and commitment to learn, contribute, and give back to their schools.
- Perhaps most importantly, DREAMer’s Roadmap could help schools retain more students. According to the Migration Policy Institute, DACA recipients…are far less likely to have completed college (4 percent versus 18 percent [of U.S. adults]. Salamanca believes that giving students up-to-date information on available money could reduce the dropout rate.
The interest in DREAMer’s Roadmap from students is significant. Salamanca says that more than 30,000 people—or roughly half the number of undocumented high school seniors—are using the platform this year. About 10,000 of these users are downloading information anonymously, since the app lets people have access to everything on the platform without having to register.
Salamanca and her team are working on ways to get more details about users so they can add services that increase their chances of getting money, such as sending out push notifications to remind them of upcoming application deadlines and a three-button feature where students can self-report: I’M INTERESTED, I’VE APPLIED, I’VE RECEIVED.
In the next four to six months, Salamanca hopes to collaborate with schools to help more undocumented students remain in school and graduate. One idea would be to build a safe space for students where “they don’t feel they have to explain their traumas or who they are or how they’re feeling and could just be understood. We’re hoping they can build a community and the chances of them staying are a lot higher because they can find other people they can identify with.”