College Guide for Undocumented Students

According to the National Immigration Law Center, undocumented students are defined as foreign nationals who entered the U.S.:

  • Without inspection
  • With fraudulent documents
  • Legally as nonimmigrants, who then violated the terms of their status by letting their Visas expire

By remaining in the U.S. without authorization, they are breaking the law. However, beyond these legal realities, there is the unsettling fact that many undocumented students are really just victims of circumstances beyond their control.


Most of these students were brought to America by their parents at a very young age. They’ve learned English, completed their schooling and integrated themselves into communities, they regard themselves as Americans. According to the report, Young Lives on Hold, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year. When they aspire to go to college along with their peers, their undocumented status becomes a major hindrance. The report also states that only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented students go on to college after graduating high school.

Based on those numbers it would appear that many students believe their undocumented status makes going to college out of the question. If students can’t legally hold a job or drive a car, how can they navigate college admissions? These students may also live in fear of being exposed and deported should they apply. In spite of such concerns, if an undocumented student is committed to attending college and is able to grasp the challenges to come, there is a distinct possibility they will be able to pursue a degree. The greatest obstacle undocumented students will likely face is paying for school, as their status makes them ineligible for federal financial aid.

Despite concerns of deportation or ineligibility to pursue higher education because of their status, many undocumented students do attend college. In this guide we layout the most common routes undocumented students can take in order to enroll in an undergraduate program. We do this by simplifying the following:

  • Facts about the path to citizenship
  • The DREAM Act and DACA
  • Rights as an undocumented student
  • Searching for and selecting colleges
  • Applying for college
  • The challenges of financial aid and finding scholarships

The Path to Citizenship

Many citizens and immigrants consider green cards to be the obvious answer for students who want to become permanent residents in the U.S., but under current law, this is virtually impossible if the person is undocumented. If such a person tried to apply for a green card, there’s a great risk their entire family could be deported.

An undocumented student is an illegal immigrant under the law. To apply for permanent residency, they must first leave the country and apply from a foreign consulate. Current law requires that if a person has been in the U.S. illegally for more than six months after their 18th birthday, they will be banned from returning to the U.S. for three to ten years. What’s more, this deported individual would also become ineligible for a green card as soon as they’ve left the country.

There is no direct path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; even marrying a citizen does not guarantee a green card will be approved. Undocumented students, however, do have cause for hope. Though it is not yet passed into law, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act will make it possible for undocumented students brought to the U.S. as minors to earn their U.S. citizenship. While this act is rewritten, debated, and voted upon in Congress, the president has already begun the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. If an undocumented student meets certain requirements, they cannot be deported without legal cause. This program does not lead to citizenship, but it protects the undocumented student’s presence in the U.S.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, also known as the DREAM Act, has become a symbol of hope for undocumented youth. Once this act is passed into law, it will give those who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children the opportunity to earn citizenship in the country they know as home.

The DREAM Act, initially proposed in 2001, has gone through many incarnations, all of them rejected by Congress. The act would provide a legal path to citizenship for undocumented students.

Dream Act Requirements

  • Be 35 years of age or younger when this act is passed
  • Be younger than 16 when they entered the U.S.
  • Be enrolled in or a graduate from a U.S. higher education institute or have a U.S. high school diploma or GED
  • At time of application, undocumented individuals must have:
    • Earned a degree from a U.S. college or university or
    • Completed two years of a bachelor’s degree or higher at a U.S. college or university and be in good standing with the school or
    • Served in a branch of the U.S. armed forces for a minimum of two years.

In its present configuration, the path to citizenship provided by the DREAM Act is a rigorous, six-year journey. It begins with granting “conditional” permanent residency to qualified undocumented immigrants who enroll in college or serve in the military. College or military requirements could be met in a variety of ways, including attending a community college or vocational school, or serving in the National Guard. After meeting those requirements, conditional residency could be upgraded to permanent resident status, a key prerequisite for obtaining U.S. citizenship.

State DREAM Acts

The DREAM Act, should it finally become law, would also repeal section 505 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA). Section 505 of the IIRIRA is written to discourage states from offering in-state tuition or other higher education benefits to undocumented students. It requires states offering undocumented students in-state tuition to also offer the same tuition rates to citizens and lawful permanent residents who graduated from the states’ high schools but who do not now live in the state.

While the DREAM Act would not require states to provide in-state tuition to undocumented students, it would repeal the IIRIRA stipulation that forces the states supporting undocumented students to support former state residents as well. This repeal would return authority for such a decision back to the states.

In the time since IIRIRA became law, 17 state legislatures have decided it is worth the 505 penalty to offer undocumented students, and all other high school graduates from that state living elsewhere, in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

DACA: A Temporary Fix

After the 112th Congress once again failed to pass the DREAM Act, President Obama directed the Department of Homeland security to initiate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which essentially provides guidelines for applying “prosecutorial discretion” when dealing with young undocumented immigrants. Prosecutorial discretion could be interpreted to simply mean not deporting someone without proper legal status if they meet requirements outlined in the DREAM Act for conditional permanent residency. Undocumented students may qualify for DACA consideration if they:

  • Were under age of 31 as of June 15th, 2012
  • Arrived in the U.S. illegally before their 16th birthday
  • Have lived continuously in the U.S. from June 15, 2007 to the present
  • Are physically present in the U.S. upon making a request for DACA consideration
  • Had no lawful immigration status on June 15, 2012
  • Are currently in high school, have graduated or earned a General Educational Development (GED) certificate
  • Are an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or U.S. Armed Forces
  • Have not been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor, three or more other misdemeanors, and are not considered a risk to national security or public safety

Navigating DACA

For guidance through the application process for DACA, United We Dream provides a variety of helpful resources, including:

  • An online screening tool to determine DACA eligibility
  • A student hotline to call for answers to questions or concerns about DACA: 1-800-855-DREAM-D1
  • Text message updates for the latest DACA news

Unfortunately, DACA is only a temporary measure that does not allow those who qualify a real opportunity to become legal residents, as the path to citizenship outlined in the DREAM Act would.

Qualifying for DACA does, however, defer action for a period of two years. This means that those who meet the above criteria are not faced with deportation, and they are considered to be in the U.S. lawfully. They may also apply for employment authorization. When a student qualifies for DACA, they can stay updated on the renewal process with the United We Dream DACA Renewal Network.

DACA status expires after two years, but renewal is possible. It is recommended that those who qualified for DACA submit their renewal forms no sooner and no later than four months before their two years are through. All forms are submitted to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, and those applying for renewal must prove that they:

  • Still meet the initial guidelines
  • Have not left the U.S. during their deferment, unless for short visits
  • Have lived solely in the U.S. since their initial deferment was approved
  • Have not been convicted of:
    • Felony
    • Significant misdemeanor (e.g. domestic violence, unlawful possession of a firearm, DUI/DWI)
    • Three or more non-significant misdemeanors
  • Are not a threat to public or national safety

Only the most recent version of Form I-821D will be accepted by the USCIS when applying for renewal. Other forms will result in a denied application. Renewal requests that are received earlier than four months before the current deferment expires may be rejected, but the forms may be resubmitted at a date closer to expiration.

An encouraging fact undocumented students should keep in mind when considering college: No federal law requires proof of citizenship to be admitted to U.S. colleges. Most institutions set their own admission policies. States that place restrictions on undocumented students, like Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Virginia, aren’t complying with any state or federal law (see map in the DREAM Act section). While it is true that undocumented status limits a student’s choices, it is possible to find a college or university that accepts undocumented students and provides the sort of funding that makes attending feasible. Students need to do a fair bit of research to determine if a school can accommodate them. Part of this research will involve directly contacting the school and asking questions about the school’s policy on undocumented students and, if it does recognize and accept them, the typical enrollment procedure.

No Fear

Undocumented students should not hesitate to express their desire to go to college. Thanks to the Family Education Rights and Privacy act, school officials can’t disclose personal information (including immigration status) about students. Undocumented students should start by asking their high school teachers and counselors for advice. Such mentors may be able to direct students to college admission counselors or pair them with other undocumented students who have either successfully enrolled in college or are aspiring to enroll.

Other than immigration status, undocumented students are no different than any other student. There are some basic ways of ensuring they are accepted into a public college or university. Each school has different admissions requirements. Those listed here are general things students can do to better their chances of getting into a school.

  • Work hard and do well in high school: Earning good grades and maintaining a good grade point average (GPA) shows colleges students are dedicated to their education.
  • Take Advanced Placement or college prep classes: These rigorous classes give students an idea of how college courses work. Good grades and high test scores from these classes show admissions offices that students can succeed. They can also help students receive tuition discounts.
  • Earn high scores on standardized tests, such as the ACT or SAT: These exams tell colleges and universities just how ready students are to tackle post-secondary work. Neither the ACT nor the SAT require students to provide a Social Security number, so undocumented students are able to take the tests and use the scores for admissions.
  • Volunteer Work and Extracurricular Activities: While not necessary for acceptance, students who show they are dedicated to their high schools and communities have a better chance of getting into college.

The Search for Schools

Because undocumented status renders students ineligible for federal financial aid, paying in-state tuition is a critical factor when it comes to affording education. A majority of America’s undocumented immigrants live in the states with laws that permit undocumented high school graduates to pay in-state tuition; again, see the map featured in the DREAM Act section of this guide to review which states apply.

Some other states without such laws have also taken measures to make college more affordable to undocumented students. Rhode Island’s Board of Governors for Higher Education and the University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents allow in-state tuition at public colleges and universities to students who qualify. Board of Regents’ decisions have also allowed for similar policies in Michigan.

In addition to college opportunities that include in-state tuition, it is important to start searching online for schools with special programs or student body organizations that support undocumented students. For instance, many of the schools in California, such as UCLA and UC Berkeley, have undocumented student programs that provide services, resources, and support. They also provide information on how students, who are ineligible to file the FAFSA, can fund their education. Many of the resources available online are through the states that grant undocumented students in-state tuition rates. However, contacting the admissions offices of schools in states where that is not the case could still end up pointing students to resources and assistance not explicitly stated on the schools’ website.

The Application Process

Each individual with the hope of attending a two or four year college or university is required to meet schools’ admission requirements. While these can differ school to school, the application process often consists of submitting:

  • An online application form
  • A letter of intent or personal statement
  • At least one supplemental essay (the topic is typically provided by the school)
  • Two or more letters of recommendations from previous teachers
  • High school and final transcripts
  • Standardized test scores
  • Application fees

Because an undocumented status may raise a red flag on application forms, students must be prepared to excel in several other key areas of the process. Gaining volunteer experience is essential because it can set a student apart. For some schools, reporting volunteer work and extracurricular activities is part of the online application form. Other schools may require students to submit resumes that outline their non-academic experiences. Personal essays are used to explain why students want to go to college and how they plan to apply their education after graduation.

For more information, check out this list of the most common admission requirements, courtesy of The College Board.

Key Application Form Concerns

To thoroughly and accurately complete a college application form, it’s likely undocumented students will need to track down some amount of paperwork. This ranges from the standard recommendations, transcripts and test scores to any particular requests of the school to show how long the student has been in the United States, schools attended and places lived.

In some cases, due to geographic separation, undocumented students may be unable to receive help on applications from parents or family, the people in their lives who may be the best at directing them to required documentation. In these instances, the students should seek help from high school guidance counselors or even the admissions office at the school they’re hoping to applying to.

Because they are undocumented, it is important students be prepared to address two major issues on an application:

  • Country of citizenship: In California, for example, the option “No Selection” is the recommended response for undocumented applicants, including those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. The “No Selection” response allows undocumented students to skip other questions about permanent residency and visa status that are not applicable to their status.
  • Social Security number: Simply skip this question. No other numbers, such as an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) or an Alien Number gained with DACA status, can be substituted.

Talking About Undocumented Status

Students should never misrepresent their immigration status, and they need to think carefully about how they explain their situation when talking to college advisors and completing written applications. Choose Your Future provides a pros and cons list in its “Undocumented Students: DREAMer’s Pathway to College” article for how and how not to discuss an undocumented status.

It is important for students to know that application advisors, admission officers, and financial aid counselors are not required by law to report undocumented students to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). What students tell their counselors and potential schools does not count as incriminating evidence against them, and their advisors may be able to point them to resources that will help them gain a temporary legal status through DACA.

An undocumented student will, justifiably, want to make people aware of the challenges they have overcome, and, in many cases, admissions essays or interviews ask students about these hardships. It’s important students do not let their undocumented status be the only factor that defines them. While discussing their status may be used to illustrate how a hardship was overcome, students should try to focus on their grades, volunteer work, and extracurricular activities as much as possible. It is important for students to shine as individuals when applying for college, and they should remember that being undocumented does not make them who they are.

Students may also want to make people aware of their financial need for school, but they should avoid language that makes them sound like victims of an unjust system. Stating that finding financial aid for undocumented students is difficult should not become a rant against higher education. These concerns should be brought to a financial aid office or counselor who has the resources to help students find the funding they need.

With no Social Security number, undocumented students cannot complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Therefore, they aren’t eligible for any federally funded financial aid, including loans, grants, scholarships or work-study money.

In most states, undocumented students are not eligible for state-funded financial aid either. However, some states do grant eligibility for state financial aid to undocumented students who qualify for in-state tuition, including California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas and Washington. Check out CollegeBoard’s Repository of Resources for Undocumented Students for more information.

Scholarships are the Key

Scholarships are the most common way undocumented students are able to pay for college. Some private institutions, free to set their own financial aid policies, award scholarships and other forms of aid to undocumented students. Most private scholarship funds and foundations require applicants to be U.S. citizens or legal residents, but there are exceptions.

The best place to start searching for scholarships is via a high school counselor who can connect students with organizations that provide access to, and information on, scholarships geared towards undocumented students. These groups may also direct users to general scholarships that do not have a citizenship or residency requirement to qualify. Two examples of such organizations are described below:

  • Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF): This civil rights organization, which has fought for the rights of the Latino community since 1968, provides several scholarships for students who want to take up the cause.
  • Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC): With the aim to fill resource gaps for undocumented students, and to help them reach their educational, professional, and personal goals, E4FC provides frequently updated lists of scholarships for undergraduate and graduate undocumented students.

Schools in the states that offer undocumented students in-state tuition may also have scholarships available. Though undocumented students are unable to submit the FAFSA, they should contact the financial aid offices before applying to determine how much aid they can receive from the school.

Once students find scholarship opportunities, they need to:

  • Research the organizations carefully to understand who is eligible for scholarships
  • Take the time to complete applications correctly and thoroughly
  • Double and triple check that all the requirements are met and all the supporting documents are included with application

Because of their status, undocumented students have very little margin for error. College and scholarship applications must be honest and include all required and supplemental materials. There are no laws forcing a school to report an undocumented student, so students should not let the fear of deportation stop them from pursuing a higher education. Asking for help when it is needed, determining whether a college or university is able to provide financial aid, and never giving up on goals will all contribute to academic success for undocumented students.