College Application Guide for Undocumented Students

Learn the important steps undocumented students need to take to complete the college application process.
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Updated on August 4, 2023
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According to the President's Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, there are approximately 450,000 undocumented students attending college. Despite the systemic roadblocks and political legislation that can impact their college experience, going to college is still a possibility for undocumented students.

Although there are some states that do not allow undocumented students to attend public colleges, such as South Carolina, many states are not only welcoming, but also offer sizeable financial aid for undocumented students who want to attend college.

This guide aims to help undocumented students navigate the often complex college application process so you can achieve your educational goals.

How to Find Colleges for Undocumented Students

Thanks to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, school officials legally can't disclose a student's immigration status without their express permission. No federal law requires proof of citizenship for admission to U.S. colleges.

Most institutions set their own admission requirements. 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 undocumented status can limit your choices, it's possible to find a college or university that accepts undocumented students and provides enough funding and support to make attending feasible.

Meet With Your High School Counselors and Teachers

Undocumented students can start their college search by asking their high school teachers and counselors for advice. Such mentors may be able to direct students to college admissions counselors or pair them with other undocumented students who have either successfully enrolled in college or are aspiring to enroll.

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. Fortunately, a large percentage of undocumented immigrants in America live in states with laws that permit undocumented high school graduates to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities.

Utilize Social Media

“Social media was very helpful to me during the application process. Without having an opportunity to visit many of the colleges (and worse because of the COVID-19 pandemic), I turned to social media as a way to get a snapshot of what universities were like. I also tuned in to meetings for prospective students for different campuses as a way to get a feel of what they were like.”

Matthew Brown, a second-year student at Queens University

Prioritize States That Actively Help Undocumented Students

Other states without such laws have taken different measures to make college more affordable for undocumented students. For example, Rhode Island's Board of Governors for Higher Education and the University of Hawaii's Board of Regents offer in-state tuition at public colleges and universities to students who qualify.

In addition to colleges that offer in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, some schools oversee special programs or student body organizations that support these learners.

For instance, many schools in California, such as UCLA and UC Berkeley, maintain 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.

“The most important factors in my college choice process were competitiveness, internships, and location. However, money posed a huge concern during this process. I kept my hopes high and believed that I would receive some sort of scholarship, either in athletics or academics. My mother encouraged me to apply to all of my dream schools and that everything would eventually fall into place. With the greatest of luck, I was awarded the Golden Door Scholarship and it helped to alleviate the weight of paying for college off of my mother’s shoulder.”

Helen Udeochu, a second-year student at Rhodes College

How to Apply to College as an Undocumented Student

Other than immigration status, you're no different than any other student. Each school maintains different admission requirements, but undocumented students can take several steps to improve their chances of gaining admission.

Most colleges ask applicants to submit the following materials:

  • Online Application
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Transcripts
  • Essays
  • Standardized Test Scores

In some cases, due to geographic separation, undocumented students may be unable to receive help with applications from parents or other family members. In these instances, you can seek help from high school guidance counselors or even the admissions department at a school where you're planning on applying.

Because they are undocumented, it is important that these students be prepared to address two major issues on their applications:

Country of Citizenship: The best answer to this question may vary, depending on where you're applying for school. 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.

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 undocumented status.

Application advisors, admissions departments, and financial aid counselors are not allowed by law to report undocumented students to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Additionally, 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 temporary legal status through DACA.

Know Your Rights as an Undocumented Student

To maximize your potential for academic success as an undocumented student, you should fully understand your legal rights and be aware of the resources available to you. Even without the passage of the federal DREAM Act, you're entitled to certain protections and opportunities on your 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.

5 Tips for Undocumented Student Completing a College Application

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    Work Hard and Do Well in High School

    Earning good grades shows colleges that you are dedicated to your education.
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    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 in these classes show schools that students can succeed in college. Additionally, students can earn college credits by meeting certain score requirements.
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    Earn High Scores on the ACT or SAT

    These exams can give colleges and universities some insight about how ready students are to tackle postsecondary coursework. Neither the ACT nor the SAT requires students to provide a Social Security number.
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    Do Volunteer Work and Extracurricular Activities

    While not required for admission into college, these efforts show a dedication to your community, which can give your application a boost.
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    Focus on the Positive

    An undocumented student may, justifiably, want to emphasize the challenges they have overcome during the application process as evidence of their character and perseverance. In many cases, admissions essays and interviews involve questions about these hardships. However, undocumented 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. They should remember that being undocumented does not define who they are.
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Frequently Asked Questions About the College Application Process for Undocumented Students

Can an undocumented student get a student visa?

Obtaining a student visa as an undocumented student is quite difficult. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, to qualify for a student visa, a student must provide evidence that their permanent residence is abroad. They may also need to conduct an interview with U.S. embassy counsel in their home country. For these reasons, getting a student visa can prove challenging for undocumented students.

Can an undocumented student get federal financial aid?

Unfortunately, because of status, undocumented students are not eligible for Pell Grants or federal aid. However, depending on their state and location, schools may provide in-state financial aid for undocumented students.

How do undocumented students pay for college?

At least 11 states offer in-state grants and aid for undocumented students, including California, New York, and Washington. Additionally, there are several nonprofit organizations and education funds that offer scholarships for undocumented students attending college.

Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about legal issues.

Meet the Students

Portrait of Matthew Brown

Matthew Brown

Matthew Brown is a second-year student attending Queens University. He is pursuing a major in Nursing with a minor in Spanish. Matthew is a recipient of the Golden Door Scholarship, a full-ride, 4-year scholarship for undocumented and DACA students. Matthew loves music and has a heart for people. He enjoys spending time with his family and friends. Matthew is very involved in his community, especially when it comes to fighting for justice for minority groups. He has taken an active role in the NAACP chapter at his university, and he is working with the International House in Charlotte to advocate for immigrants within the Charlotte area.

Portrait of Helen Udeochu

Helen Udeochu

Helen Udeochu is a second-year student at Rhodes College and a Golden Door Scholar. She identifies as Nigerian and is interested in majoring in biomathematics or health equity. Helen is passionate about health care and wants to support all women, while also improving healthcare for all marginalized and underserved communities. She aspires to be an obstetrician or gynecologist in the future.

Feature Image: Hindustan Times / Contributor / Getty Images