Ask a College Advisor: My Child Is an Undocumented Student. Can They Still Attend College in the U.S.?

Hear from one of our education professionals on college options for undocumented students.

portrait of Lauren Albano, M.Ed.
by Lauren Albano, M.Ed.

Published on March 3, 2022 · Updated on March 4, 2022

Edited by Amelia Buckley
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Ask a College Advisor: My Child Is an Undocumented Student. Can They Still Attend College in the U.S.?

Question: My child is an undocumented student. Can they still attend college in the U.S.?

Answer: As a parent, you want your child to achieve personal, professional, and financial success as they enter adulthood. If your child is undocumented, you may have concerns about whether college is an option and what additional challenges might arise due to their undocumented status.

First, know that undocumented students can absolutely attend college in the United States. In fact, over 450,000 college students in the U.S. are undocumented, according to the President's Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

Sending your child to college with undocumented status can seem daunting. However, a college degree offers your child many more opportunities for professional and financial success.

Let's explore some of the resources available for undocumented students and provide guidance for you as a parent to support your child through their college experience.

Application Process

Almost all colleges and universities in the U.S. allow undocumented students to attend. No federal law prohibits undocumented students from enrolling in postsecondary education.

However, some states have enacted policies prohibiting enrollment for some undocumented students, especially those who are not Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) recipients.

When applying to colleges, students might be unsure about how to disclose their undocumented status in their application. Schools often allow students to leave some sections blank — such as questions asking for a Social Security number or country of citizenship — so there is no clear documentation of their status.

It can be intimidating to provide responses alluding to an undocumented status. However, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits admissions and financial aid officials from disclosing a student's immigration status to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

This can provide some added security when completing applications or meeting with an admissions counselor.

Scholarships

One of the biggest hurdles for undocumented students attending college can be obtaining financial aid or scholarships — especially in states where undocumented students do not qualify for in-state tuition at public institutions.

Undocumented students cannot obtain federal financial aid or participate in federal work-study programs. However, they may still be eligible for institutional, state, or private scholarships that either don't require U.S. citizenship or are specifically designated for undocumented students.

Examine all options for financial aid. Apply early to increase chances of finding funding.

Some schools consider undocumented students as nonresidents or international students, which can result in higher tuition fees. Contact prospective colleges to ask whether undocumented students are considered domestic or international and how that might impact the cost of tuition.

Campus Resources

When researching potential schools to attend, it's important to specifically look for resources available to undocumented students.

Has the school made a public stance in support of its undocumented student community? Or is there a glaring lack of representation or support for its undocumented student population? This can speak volumes about the campus culture.

Search through prospective school websites for specific resources made available, including clubs and organizations dedicated to DACA and undocumented students. Take note of the way in which the school values inclusion and diversity and how this is represented in its staff, faculty members, and support services.

Some minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and especially Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) have funded entire resource centers and immigrant legal services for their undocumented student populations. This can greatly improve student success and persistence to graduation.

These schools may also have higher numbers of undocumented students on campus, which can provide community, support, and mentorship among peers with similar experiences.

Legal Resources

It is important to know the legal resources available to undocumented students and families, especially in relation to students with DACA status. Look carefully at each state's approach to protections, or lack thereof, for undocumented students.

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center also recommends printing Red Cards for students. These cards allow students to have quick access to important information and guidance on how to respond if confronted by law or immigration enforcement.

Career Preparation

An important aspect of a college education is obtaining professional experience through work or internships. But some additional navigation is sometimes needed for undocumented students.

For students enrolled in DACA with a work permit, there can be opportunities for on-campus employment or paid internships to earn some money while gaining professional training.

Students without a work permit can still gain valuable career skills through mentorship and networking opportunities and certain unpaid internships that accept undocumented students.

Encourage your student to pursue these experiences to help set them up for success after graduation.

Supporting Your Student

College can be a stressful time for any student. And a student's undocumented status can create additional mental health challenges.

Support your child by checking in with them regularly, ensuring they are seeking support when needed. Encourage your child to connect with other undocumented students to build community.

Summary

Although they may face some additional challenges in the college search and financial aid processes, undocumented students can definitely attend college in the U.S. Your support as a parent can be incredibly impactful in helping your student through their college experience.

Help your child research which colleges might provide the most supportive environment for undocumented applicants and which schools to avoid.

Understand the cost of tuition and options for scholarships to help ease the financial burden of college.

Encourage your child to seek communities of support — both on and off campus. This can greatly impact your student's success in college and after graduation.

Have a Question About College?

In our Ask a College Advisor series, experienced advisors provide an insider look at the college experience by answering your questions about college admissions, finances, and student life.


DISCLAIMER: The responses provided as part of the Ask a College Advisor series are for general informational purposes only. Readers should contact a professional academic, career, or financial advisor before making decisions regarding individual situations.


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