Finding and getting into the right college or university can be a daunting task, but it can also lead to extremely rewarding opportunities for career and personal advancement. There are many national programs and state laws that allow undocumented students to attend the college of their choosing. The following guide aims to help these students navigate the many exciting options available to them, in order to reach their educational goals.
According to the National Immigration Law Center, undocumented individuals are defined as foreign nationals who entered the U.S.:
- without inspection;
- with fraudulent documents; or
- legally as nonimmigrants, who then violated the terms of their status by letting their visas expire.
Beyond legal realities, it's important to remember that many undocumented students are victims of circumstances beyond their control. Most of them were brought to America by their parents at a very young age. They've learned English, completed high school, integrated themselves into communities, and they consider themselves Americans.
By recent estimates, 11.3 million undocumented individuals live in the United States. About half come from Mexico, and many others hail from Central America, South America, and Asia. Notably, the undocumented population in the U.S. is relatively young - around 80 percent are 44 years old or younger.
Currently, undocumented Americans pay $12 billion each year to the Social Security Trust Fund. According to a study by The College Board, undocumented students would pay even more in taxes and help stimulate the nation's economy if given access to higher education. Additionally, these students would likely undertake community service and display an inclination toward civic engagement.
Undocumented students with excellent grades, ample volunteer experience, and high test scores will find that their path to earning a degree may not be as difficult as they expect. While some states - Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia - prohibit undocumented students from enrolling in public colleges, the majority welcome them and have protections in place to ensure they can reach their full potential. Regardless of their level of social and cultural assimilation, however, undocumented students may face some challenges when it comes to paying for college. For example, undocumented college students are not eligible for federal financial aid and can only receive state financial aid in a handful of states.
According to The College Board's report, Young Lives on Hold, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year, and just 5-10% of them enroll in college. While that low number can be primarily attributed to systemic roadblocks, it's likely that another significant contributor is the common misconception that college simply isn't a realistic option for these students. Raising awareness of the viability and value of higher education for undocumented students is the first step to promoting their welfare as productive members of the nation's workforce.
about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year, and just 5-10% of them enroll in college
Not only is a college degree desirable, it's on its way to essentially become a requirement in the U.S. job market. According to a report by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, 65% of jobs in the U.S. will require some form of education beyond a high school diploma by the year 2020. That same report also states that, at the current production rate, the U.S. will lack five million workers needed to fill those jobs by 2020.
With that in mind, it's all the more important that undocumented students explore the options and resources available to help them obtain a degree.
Many students believe that their undocumented status will prevent them from attending college. These students may live in fear of being exposed and deported should they apply. This should not be a concern for potential college students as it is against the law for colleges to report a student's immigration status without their permission.
Additionally, they could perceive college as cost-prohibitive because their status makes them ineligible for federal financial aid.While federal financial aid is not an option, there are many financial aid options including scholarships, grants, and private loans to make college more affordable. Undocumented students who are committed to attending college and who fully comprehend the challenges to come can make their educational dreams a reality.
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 United States. However, under current law, it's virtually impossible for undocumented individuals to get a green card. In fact, even applying for one presents a risk that an undocumented individual and their family could be deported.
To apply for permanent residency, undocumented students must first leave the country and apply from a foreign consulate. Current law requires that if a person has been in the U.S. without documentation for more than six months after their 18th birthday, they will be banned from returning to the U.S. for three to ten years. This 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 that a green card will be approved. Undocumented students, however, do have cause for hope. In 2012, President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Through DACA, qualified undocumented students cannot be deported without legal cause for two years. The program does not lead to citizenship, but it protects undocumented students' presence in the United States.
The DREAM Act
The federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, also known as the DREAM Act, serves as a symbol of hope for undocumented youth. If the act is passed into law, it would give those who were 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 latest version, recently introduced as the bipartisan DREAM Act of 2017, represents another opportunity to pave the path to citizenship for undocumented students.
DREAM Act Requirements
- Threshold Requirements:
- 35 years of age or younger at the time the act is passed;
- younger than 16 at the time of entrance into the U.S.;
- 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;
- 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;
- 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 would be a six-year journey. It would begin 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 become law, would also repeal Section 505 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA). That provision discourages states from offering in-state tuition or other higher education benefits to undocumented students by requiring any state that does so to also offer the same tuition rates to citizens and lawful permanent residents who graduated from the state's 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 college 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, nearly 20 state legislatures have decided it is worth the Section 505 penalty to offer undocumented college students and all other high school graduates from that state living elsewhere in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities through their own state version of the DREAM Act. In these cases, state laws take precedent over the federal government's provisions.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program
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 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. 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. on June 15, 2012 and upon making a request for DACA consideration;
- had no lawful immigration status on June 15, 2012;
- are currently in high school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, have obtained a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or U.S. Armed Forces;
- have not been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, and are not considered a risk to national security or public safety
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
Qualifying for DACA does 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.
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;
- are not a threat to public or national safety;
- have not been convicted of:
- a felony;
- a significant misdemeanor (e.g., domestic violence, unlawful possession of a firearm, or a DUI/DWI);
- three or more non-significant misdemeanors
Only the most recent version of Form I-821D will be accepted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) when applying for renewal. 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.
Meet Undocumented Student and Activist Carlos Rodriguez
Carlos Rodriguez is a graduate of Seattle University where he earned a B.A. in Public Affairs. As the former Student Body President, he has used his position to talk about issues related to immigration, affordable housing, and homelessness. He has been vocal about his status as an undocumented immigrant in hopes of bringing awareness to the complexity of immigration in the United States.
- Can you tell us a little about your academic journey and the process you went through while applying to college?
I had a particularly difficult time in high school because of the recession and tough anti-immigrant laws that made it difficult for my parents to keep a steady income. As a result, I moved to three different states and went to five different high schools. As a first generation student, my parents could not provide much guidance on the application process, so I had to rely on the help of my school counselors, teachers, and older brother.
In Georgia, undocumented students are prohibited from attending major public universities so I decided to research schools that were more friendly towards undocumented students. Sometimes I would call a university and ask about their acceptance policy towards undocumented students, which made it difficult for me when people didn't know what an undocumented student was, or rudely answered saying I could not apply. After some time, I looked into news articles and op-eds of university presidents that talked about helping undocumented students in higher education, which is how I ended up at SeattleU.
- What are the three most important attributes or characteristics an undocumented student should consider when selecting a university experience and why?
Location -- Finding a state where there aren't too many anti-immigrant laws was something I heavily considered when applying to college. Depending on how far away from home you are, it is important to remember that travel isn't always cheap and it can become very time consuming. Traveling to and from Georgia to see my parents for breaks was very expensive and I didn't always go home for breaks or holidays.
Cost -- If you don't have financial support from your family, it would be very difficult to pay for college and even more so if you are traveling to a different state. While Jesuit universities are more willing to accept and offer some financial support to undocumented students, they are still very expensive.
Diversity -- Finding somewhere where you feel like you belong is very important, especially if you don't get the opportunity to travel home and see family. I spent many holidays alone and would've wished there were more people like me to be around with during those times. Not seeing parts of my culture or traditions I grew up in was difficult sometimes, but being at school where there are clubs, people, and events creates that sense of belonging.
- How important is the community and civic attitude (where the university is located) towards undocumented students when selecting a college to attend?
Very important. Although undocumented students can't vote, there are many ways to get involved civically. I got involved in local government campaigns and attended political functions where I could talk about my experiences as an undocumented immigrant -- something I would not have felt safe or comfortable doing in my home state of Georgia.
- What advice would you give to a undocumented student who is considering college?
Don't give up and there's always a way. I never thought I would graduate from college and even thinking about paying for it was unimaginable. It's not easy being undocumented and it's definitely not easy being an undocumented student in college. If you can't attend your dream college or if you don't feel like you belong at the college you are at speak up for yourself. One person speaking out about their experience can really help many others in the same situation.
- What was the financial aid process like compared to someone applying as a documented student?
I definitely couldn't get any federal aid, but was offered many merit based scholarships. I wasn't able to get any scholarships outside of what the school offered, so I paid the rest out of pocket. My parents didn't want to take out loans (and quite honestly, we weren't even sure if that would even be a possibility for us) which is why everything we paid was out of pocket, but at least I'm debt free. I wouldn't really say there was a “process” like there is for FAFSA, it's just about talking to the financial aid office and explaining that you can't apply for federal financial aid and hope that they can offer more merit based or private scholarships.
- What are the ways a college should support undocumented students? Where can students go for help if an issue does arise?
Multicultural offices are the best bet, but they may not always have the resources to support undocumented students. Some schools, like the University of Washington in Seattle, have their own office dedicated to helping undocumented students (Leadership Without Borders). Since my school didn't have many resources to help undocumented students, I reached out to them often and attended some social gatherings. Colleges could do more to help undocumented students by accepting them, if they don't already, offering more financial aid, and providing other services like career counseling, healthcare, and legal help.
- Were there things you were unable to do or activities you missed out on in college due to your immigration status?
Even though I have DACA status (for now), I wasn't able to apply for some jobs that required citizenship. I wasn't able to study abroad. Since I had to find ways to pay for college, I would work up to 30 hours a week (while still a full time student), which prevented me from doing more general things like hanging out with friends or just feeling well rested.
- What are some of the things that an undocumented student has to think about in college that someone who has citizenship might not consider?
Students should think about financial aid, immigration laws, travel (safety and cost), and the general things I mentioned above. Finding housing can also be difficult without having a social security number or credit. Having plans in case someone in your family gets deported while you're away is also a difficult thing to think about while in college.
- What has inspired you to speak out as an undocumented student? How has your life changed by doing so?
Hiding in the shadows won't really help anyone. For me, I reached a point in my life where I felt safe and comfortable sharing my story. While it has been difficult with the political climate, many people have reached out and have asked how they can help or if they're undocumented, they ask about resources and how to make it through college. I knew speaking out was a risk (I became a victim of assault, a hate crime, and extortion right after i did) but for me, I think that being a beacon of resources has helped more people which makes it worth it. The first person to reach out was a high school student and their high school counselor and I was able to help get them accepted to SeattleU. I was very glad to see someone like me get the help I wished I would've had. If it meant only helping one person that was fine with me, but as more time went by, so many people reached out about how they could get into college, pay for it, and even be involved in changing systems that prevent undocumented students from becoming successful.
Applying for College
Here's an encouraging fact that undocumented students should keep in mind when considering college: No federal law requires proof of citizenship for admission 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 doing so to comply with any state or federal law. 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 enough funding to make attending feasible. However, 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 standard enrollment procedure.
Fear of Disclosure
Thanks to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, it is against the law for school officials to disclose a student's immigration status without their express permission. Undocumented students should start their college search 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.
Thanks to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, school officials cannot disclose immigration status about students without their express permission.
Strengthening Your Application
Other than immigration status, undocumented students are no different than any other student. There are some basic ways of helping to ensure they are accepted into a public college or university. Each school has different admissions requirements. 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 shows colleges that 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. Additionally, students can earn college credits by meeting certain score requirements.
- 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 requires students to provide a Social Security number.
- Volunteer work and extracurricular activities
While not required for acceptance, these efforts show a dedication to community that gives any application a boost in the eyes of admissions officials.
The Search for Schools
Because undocumented status renders students ineligible for federal financial aid, access to in-state tuition is a critical factor when it comes to affording education. A majority of America's undocumented immigrants live in states with laws that permit undocumented high school graduates to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities.
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 offer 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 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can fund their education. Many of the resources available online involve the states that grant in-state tuition rates to undocumented students. However, contacting the admissions offices of schools in other states could still lead to resources and assistance not explicitly offered on the schools' websites.
Created by Title V of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) program provides funding to not-for-profit colleges and universities where 25% or more of their full-time students identify as Hispanic. HSIs use these government grants to fund on-campus resources and support services that cater specifically to Hispanic students. The HSI program has been heavily promoted by the Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities (HACU), an organization whose member institutions serve more than two-thirds of all Hispanic college students.
Since the inception of the HSI program, the number of schools so designated has increased along with the number of Hispanic college students in accredited programs. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education recognized 245 HSIs. By 2015, the number of recognized HSIs had risen to 472 schools around the country.
Unsurprisingly, California boasts the most HSIs with 159. Texas, Florida, and New Mexico claim the next three spots, with 83, 27, and 23, respectively. In addition, Puerto Rico is home to 65 recognized HSIs.
Community Colleges & Dual-Credit Programs
Hundreds of community colleges around the U.S. allow students to enroll in classes for college credit before they even graduate from high school. Because these courses also count toward high school graduation requirements, they help students save both time and money.
Community colleges typically have the same admissions and tuition policies regarding undocumented students as other institutions in the state. If a state has its own version of the DREAM Act, qualified undocumented students can enroll in and pay for community college courses at in-state tuition rates. Otherwise, these students would be treated as international students and would pay out-of-state tuition.
The Application Process
Anyone seeking to attend a two- or four-year college or university is required to meet the school's admission requirements. While these can differ from school to school, the application process typically 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 recommendation from previous teachers;
- high school transcripts;
- standardized test scores;
- application fees
Volunteer experience is essential for any student as it can set a student apart from their competition. 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. Typically, personal essays are used to explain why students want to go to college and how they plan to put their education to use after graduation.
For more information, check out this list of the most common admission requirements, courtesy of The College Board.
Applying to College as a Non-English Speaker
Undocumented students who don't speak English fluently might have concerns about understanding requirements fully or filling out paperwork properly. These individuals should seek assistance from their high school's college counselor and/or ELL teachers. Additionally, local language tutors can help explain confusing application questions and documentation requirements. Translation services are also typically available online or at local community centers, but can be cost-prohibitive.
Application Form Concerns
To thoroughly and accurately complete a college application form, it's likely that 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 for evidence of how long the student has been in the U.S., schools they've attended, and places they've lived.
In some cases, due to geographic separation, undocumented students may be unable to receive help with applications from parents or other family members, 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 that these 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 DACA status. The “No Selection” response allows undocumented students to skip other questions about permanent residency and visa status that are not applicable.
Social Security number: Simply skip this question. No other numbers, such as an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number 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 the best way to explain their situation when talking to college advisors and completing written applications. Choose Your Future, a resource for prospective high school and college students, provides a pros and cons list in its “Undocumented Students: DREAMer's Pathway to College” article regarding how to discuss an undocumented status.
It is important for students to know that application advisors, admission officers, and financial aid counselors are not allowed by law to report undocumented students to the USCIS. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits schools from providing information on a student's immigration status to federal immigration agents. What students tell their counselors and potential schools cannot typically serve 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.
Focusing on the Positive
An undocumented student will, justifiably, want to emphasize the challenges they have overcome in their applications as evidence of their character and perseverance. In many cases, admissions essays or interviews involve questions about these hardships. It's important that students do not let their undocumented status be the factor that defines them. While discussions of 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 inform admissions officials of their need for financial assistance, 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.
Financing an Education
Victor C. Romero, an acclaimed law professor from Penn State recently wrote, "Undocumented status and poverty are mutually reinforcing obstacles to [educational] advancement." In other words, undocumented college students can earn an education to help improve their financial situation, but they have to find a way to pay for that education first. That's difficult for anyone, undocumented or not.
Almost a third of the undocumented individuals living in the U.S. are below the poverty line. Twice that many lack health insurance. Without a Social Security number, undocumented students cannot complete the FAFSA. Therefore, they aren't eligible for any federally funded financial aid, like federal loans, grants, scholarships, or work-study money.
Without an SSN, undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid.
Any student who does have an SSN should complete a FAFSA.
How to Fill out the FAFSA as an Undocumented Student
- The FAFSA does not require the citizenship status of the applicant's parents, but does request their SSNs. Applicants must write in “000-00-0000” as the SSN for any parent or legal guardian who is undocumented.
- Applicants will encounter the following question: “Are you a U.S. citizen?” Undocumented students must check the box for “No, I am not a citizen or eligible noncitizen.”
- The form also features questions about the “legal state of residence” for the applicant and their parents. The correct answer will vary, as each U.S. state has different requirements for legal state residency. Applicants should consult their high school career counselor before completing this section.
- The online FAFSA form features an IRS Data Retrieval tool that allows applicants to submit their tax information and that of their their parents. If the applicant or their parents did not file an income tax return during the previous year, then tax information may be entered manually.
In most states, undocumented college 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 The College Board's Repository of Resources for Undocumented Students for more information.
Additionally, there are other forms of financial assistance available to undocumented college students. These include private loans (which require a resident co-signer), institutional aid (only available in states with their own version of the DREAM Act), and private scholarships
Another potential financial recourse for undocumented students is an Individual Development Account (IDA). Available to low-income households, IDAs act as savings accounts where funds are matched by a variety of public and private sources. IDAs are a great way to build up savings without incurring debt or accruing interest.
Scholarships are the most common way that 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 through 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. Three 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): Seeking 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 undocumented students at the graduate and undergraduate levels.
TheDream.US: Partnering with more than 75 colleges and universities around the country, TheDream.US works to promote access to higher education for DACA recipients and students with Temporary Protected Status by providing scholarships and other support services.
Schools in the states that offer in-state tuition to undocumented students may also have scholarships available. Though undocumented students are typically unable to submit the FAFSA, they should contact schools' financial aid offices before applying to determine how much aid they can receive.
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.
It is against the law for a school to report a student's immigration status, so students should not let the fear of deportation stop them from pursuing a higher education. Undocumented students who ask for assistance when they need it, do their due diligence on schools' requirements and resources, and stay persistent in pursuit of their goals will find the academic success they seek.
Check out our guide to scholarships for Hispanic and Latino students for more information on financial aid opportunities including scholarships and grants.
Know Your Rights
To maximize their potential for academic success, all undocumented students should fully understand their legal rights and be aware of the resources available to them. Even without the passage of the federal DREAM Act, these students are entitled to certain protections and opportunities on their path to earning a degree.
Perhaps the most crucial fact for undocumented students to remember is that there is no federal law that requires proof of citizenship status for admission or matriculation at any U.S. college or university. Because of a common misconception to the contrary, millions of undocumented individuals are missing out on the opportunity to gain an education, improve their employment prospects, and contribute to the growth of the U.S. economy.
In addition to their rights under state mini-DREAM Acts and DACA, undocumented students have the right to block disclosure of their education records by schools (except in special circumstances) under FERPA. Under the law, any government authority seeking access to such information needs a court order or a warrant. Thanks to FERPA, students don't have to worry about hiding their undocumented status from school officials -- even during the application process.
Navigating the College Experience as an Undocumented Student
With all the research, forms, documentation, and procedures involved in choosing and applying to colleges, it can be surprisingly easy to neglect preparation for the actual college experience itself. Here, again, undocumented students must consider their special situation and ready themselves for potential challenges unique to their status.
Feelings of Anxiety and Isolation
First-time college students often experience anxiety living away from home in an unfamiliar environment. That anxiety can be exacerbated for undocumented students, who might fear deportation for themselves and their family members. To address this concern, schools around the country are enforcing protections for undocumented students by refusing to allow immigration agents on campus without a warrant and withholding students' immigration status in the absence of a subpoena. Some "sanctuary campuses" even offer free legal services to undocumented students.
Additionally, it's fairly common for undocumented students to feel a sense of separation from their classmates who don't have to worry about things like the promised repeal of DACA or immigration raids. These feelings of isolation typically begin in adolescence, when undocumented teens can't share core developmental experiences with their documented friends like earning their driver's license, casting their first vote in a presidential election, or getting their first job. This divide can be reinforced in college, where undocumented students' personal budgets -- often stretched tight due to their inability to receive federal funding -- can preclude them from joining expensive group activities.
Fortunately, several campuses across the U.S. feature groups for undocumented immigrants where these students can voice needs and concerns, advocate for their rights, and receive support from others who empathize with their situation. Columbia University's Undocumented Students Initiative, for example, maintains an active Facebook page where members can contribute to a public dialogue and access information on internship opportunities and the like. United We Dream, an organization that supports and fosters higher education opportunities for undocumented students, puts on a "Coming out Day" in support of undocumented students. They encourage schools and professionals to pledge solidarity with these students in order to help them reach their full potential.
Activities, Events, and Opportunities On and Off Campus
Although an SSN or U.S. citizenship usually isn't required for the majority of student activities on and off a typical college campus, there are instances where undocumented students will find themselves disadvantaged or disallowed from participating.
Studying abroad as an undocumented student is possible through advanced parole options given by USCIS. When traveling abroad for school, this advanced parole is necessary to ensure there are no problems or delays when returning home.
Certain extracurricular activities may be unavailable to undocumented students. Although DACA students can receive work authorization, many internships and volunteering opportunities -- particularly those funded by government grants -- require an SSN or proof of citizenship. For all other opportunities, it's important to note that employers cannot legally discriminate against applicants on the basis of their employment authorization.
Even more casual activities can create problems for undocumented students. While a documented student might not think twice about joining an on-campus protest or signing a petition, their undocumented peers hesitate before associating with political dissenters or putting their name on a list. Similarly, all kinds of forms -- from scholarship applications to intake papers at the doctor's office -- ask for an SSN, leaving undocumented students wondering what to do.
Beyond academic and professional opportunities, undocumented students may also struggle in social endeavors. While typical students may fear getting busted for underage drinking, undocumented students have bigger problems to worry about when it comes to dealing with the police. In fact, any situation involving law enforcement -- even simply being a victim or witness of a crime -- can trigger feelings of trepidation for these students as soon as they're asked for identification.
College Resources for Undocumented Students
- BigFuture: A comprehensive guide to college created by The College Board, this site offers resources specifically for undocumented students like articles, testimonials, and financial aid calculators.
- Questions and Answers - Financial Aid and Undocumented Students: This site provides information from the U.S. Department of Education on various sources of financial aid available to undocumented students and their accompanying requirements.
- United We Dream: United We Dream works to promote collaboration among immigrant students along with engagement in community efforts to improve educational opportunities for undocumented students.
- "For Undocumented Students: Questions and Answers About Paying for College": This FAQ-style page from The College Board answers common questions on financial aid for undocumented students and provides helpful advice on how to cut costs.
- My Undocumented Life: This blog provides up-to-date information on resources and scholarships that pertain to undocumented immigrants. They strive to provide a sense of community for all of their readers.
Legal Resources for Undocumented Students
- Immigrant Legal Resource Center: Promoting a society that respects the rights and welfare of all people, the ILRC works with immigrants, community organizations, and lawyers to advocate for the rights and education of undocumented individuals.
- National Immigration Law Center: Since 1979, the NILC has advocated for the rights of low-income immigrants through litigation, policy analysis, and communication strategies. The organization also provides training, educational materials, and legal advice.
- National Immigration Legal Services Directory: This site provides a search tool that allows users to locate free or low-cost legal services dealing with immigration in their area. The directory includes over 900 immigration lawyers in all 50 states.
- United We Dream: This is the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the country. They offer resources and programs to advocate for further higher education opportunities for undocumented students.
DACA Resources for Undocumented Students
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: A subset of the Department of Homeland Security, USCIS provides all of the necessary forms for initial application to or renewal of DACA. The site also features helpful videos, filing tips, and articles about avoiding immigration scams.
- UC Berkeley: As part of its Undocumented Student Program, Berkeley provides detailed information on DACA requirements and the renewal process. Additionally, the site offers updates on the state of DACA under the Trump administration.
- CitizenPath's DACA Resource Center: Featuring the latest news on DACA and other issues concerning undocumented immigrants, CitizenPath's site also provides helpful tips on the application process as well as guidance for successful enrollees.