Graduate School Guide for Undocumented Students

Graduate School Guide for Undocumented Students

By Doug Wintemute

Reviewed by Mary Louis and Susana Muñoz, Ph.D.
With advice from Judith Perez Castro and Ricardo Crespo

Published on September 3, 2021

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Attending graduate school is no easy feat. Depending on the department, admission requirements and tuition rates can make these programs inaccessible for many, but undocumented students face additional barriers when pursuing master's and doctoral degrees.

Recent estimates put the number of undocumented higher education students in the U.S. at more than 427,000 pupils. None of those learners have access to federal aid, and some are unable to access in-state tuition rates or even enroll at public schools in their home states.

In this guide, we explore the plight of undocumented students in graduate school, providing information and resources that might help these learners overcome some obstacles.

Challenges Undocumented Graduate Students Face

Graduate school can be overwhelming for so many students. And undocumented graduate students may feel more strain than others, especially if they are first-generation students who lack an experienced support system. Some states restrict graduate school at public institutions for undocumented students altogether, including Alabama and South Carolina.

Financial situations can lead to even more challenges for undocumented students in graduate school. According to Bread for the World, the poverty rate for undocumented people sits at approximately 30%, nearly three times the average rate in the U.S. With no access to federal financial aid, these learners must fund their education through other means, such as personal funds, loans, and scholarships for undocumented students.

Choosing a Graduate Program as an Undocumented Student

Below are some of the most important considerations for undocumented students when picking a graduate school and program.

Program Curriculum

A program's curriculum provides details on courses and other requirements. Prospective graduate students should choose programs that cover material that interests them and helps them prepare for their target career. They should also consider lab, research, and project requirements.

Location

Location can impact a program's price, curriculum, and admission requirements. Location plays an even bigger role in choosing a graduate school for undocumented students. Schools in some states offer more specialized services and programs to support undocumented students, whereas others establish additional hurdles.

Additionally, choosing programs in sanctuary cities — where there may be more resources and programs tailored towards the advocacy of immigrant rights — can help undocumented students protect themselves and their rights.

Cost

Students should pay close attention to costs related to tuition, housing, and other expenses. Some schools withhold in-state tuition rates from undocumented students, who already cannot receive federal financial aid.

Program Requirements

A program's prerequisites can help students determine their eligibility for admission and their chances of success. These requirements can also provide information on admission policies regarding undocumented students.

Resources and Support Systems

Many schools offer career and academic support services. Undocumented students can also look for graduates schools that boast diversity and inclusion resources, including support groups, immigration rights information, campus organizations, and mentorship opportunities.

Interview With a Student: Judith Perez-Castro Judith Perez-Castro

What made you decide to pursue a law degree? Did you know you wanted to pursue this career during your undergraduate program?

My dad's near deportation my junior year of high school was what made me pursue a law degree. I saw first-hand the need for bilingual attorneys. Yes, I knew I wanted to pursue a law degree in undergrad. Getting a bachelor's was my first step toward law school.

What resources were helpful to you as you went through the college application process? How did the process differ when you applied to graduate school?

My mentor was helpful as they helped me navigate through the process because my parents did not know what the process was and themselves did not complete more than a middle school education and cannot speak English. I applied for law school largely on my own from studying for the LSAT, applying for and taking the LSAT, and applying to law school as well as for scholarships.

What has been the biggest change in your academic experience as a graduate student compared to your time as an undergraduate college student?

As an ICLEO fellow, part of the program requires a law school summer institute where you are given a taste of what law school is like by taking classes. It was the hardest thing I've ever done and I am a 4.0 student. Totally different playing field and way more challenging than everything I've ever done. I will also be a part-time student and will have to go to school and work part time.

How has your identity and status influenced your graduate school experience?

My Hispanic DACA experience has 100% influenced my school and work experience. I am in a white-male-dominated field and live in a town with a large Hispanic demographic where the attorney pool is not reflective of the population. Hispanic law school students are an extremely small percentage as well, so I am sure this will impact my graduate experience. It's nothing new, however. I went to undergrad in the South.

Applying to Graduate School as an Undocumented Student

There are no federal laws that bar undocumented students from graduate school. Nevertheless, some states, including Alabama and South Carolina, do not allow undocumented learners to attend public schools.

Some schools require proof of citizenship. Others allow only Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students to apply, and still others are willing to accept all qualified students — regardless of their legal status. Below are some of the most common admission requirements for undocumented graduate students.

Graduate Applications

Graduate applications may ask students to disclose their citizenship status. Some schools make these answers mandatory, but others allow applicants to bypass these questions without answering them. Some schools may even offer free applications to undocumented students.

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, schools cannot reveal a student's personal information without their consent. Neverthless, undocumented students should speak to an advisor before completing these forms.

Entrance Exams

Many graduate schools ask applicants to submit standardized test scores. Scoring above the 50th percentile on the GRE and/or above the 75th percentile on the GMAT can greatly improve your chances of being accepted.

However, test-takers typically need to present valid identification, which can present problems for undocumented students. Tests may accept any government-issued ID, which can help some learners. Students without any form of identification may need to call a testing center anonymously to find out how to request an ID waiver.

Additional Application Materials

Interview With a Student: Ricardo Crespo Ricardo Crespo

What made you decide to pursue a degree in medicine? Did you know you wanted to pursue this career during your undergraduate program?

I chose a career in medicine because I sought the opportunity to work with people from diverse backgrounds and the reward of establishing long-term relationships with patients. Throughout my life, I have found happiness in meeting people from many walks of life and learning about them in a way that allows me to help them with their problems.

My various clinical experiences during my undergraduate career served to reinforce my desire to practice medicine and learn the robust sciences involved in the functioning of the human body. Lastly, I enjoy the fact that in medicine, I will get to see new things every day and be constantly challenged towards becoming a lifelong learner in my career.

What resources were helpful to you as you went through the graduate school application process? How did the process differ when you applied to medical school?

My guidance counselor was my number one resource when I was going through the college application process. She offered constant advice and provided information whenever I needed it. My high school wrestling coach was also a tremendous resource, who offered both reassurance and support (as well as proofreading help!).

The application process was different for medical school because there are so many students applying and, in my experience, nowhere near enough pre-health advisors. In that sense, I felt like I was navigating a lot of my questions and doubts on my own, particularly those related to DACA. However, I was able to find incredible mentors, professors, and medical student friends to help guide me in the right direction.

What has been the biggest change in your academic experience as a graduate student compared to your time as an undergraduate college student?

So far, I have experienced more nerves and anxiety as a new professional student than I did when I began as an undergraduate. I think this also dovetails with the feeling of imposter syndrome that I and so many of my classmates experience. We even had a lecturer address rampant impostor syndrome during our medical school orientation.

My professional academic experience is also different because I know my undergraduate mentors can no longer help me as much as they once did; this means that I must once again focus on networking and finding new professors/faculty/staff to guide and mentor me on a whole new journey in my education. The amount of material that we are expected to know is also much greater. However, it is so nice to be able to concentrate on one set of material — the information that encompasses my career in medicine — and not have to worry about other not-as-relevant classes.

How has your identity and status influenced your graduate school experience?

My identity has influenced my professional school experience tremendously. As someone who is a DACA student, I have constantly experienced academic and social barriers that push me to rise above my status and face challenges with grace, integrity, and confidence.

While being DACAmented is part of who I am and influences my career aspirations, it is not something that I allow to define me. I am extremely proud to be a Mexican, North Carolinian country boy who is bilingual and knows how to relate to people who come from all parts of the social spectrum.

As someone who originated in a lower-income family of immigrants but is now one step closer to becoming a doctor, I hope to serve as a role model and help those who are struggling in any walk of life.

Paying for Graduate School as an Undocumented Student

Depending on the field, paying for graduate school can be a challenge for many students, including undocumented students. Financial aid for undocumented students may not even be available in some cases. While undocumented students can legally apply to grad school, they do not qualify for federal funding, and some state funding is also restricted.

When undocumented students attend graduate school, they often rely on a combination of personal financing; private loans; fellowships; assistantships; and/or regional, state, and private scholarships.

In-State Tuition Breaks

Many schools offer tuition discounts to in-state learners, but several states withhold these discounts from undocumented students. In fact, only about 20 states provide in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, including California, Washington, New York, and Florida.

In-state rates can be significantly less expensive than out-of-state rates — the ability to access these discounts can make it much easier for undocumented students to afford graduate school.

Scholarships and Grants

Without access to federal funding, undocumented students may need to pursue other avenues to fund their education. Grants and scholarships for undocumented students that are offered by colleges, state governments, and private organizations provide some of the best options. These programs may specifically serve undocumented students and may not require citizenship information.

Undocumented students can check with their state, graduate program, or financial aid office to see what financial support they may qualify for. Prospective students should also seek out private scholarships by searching through databases.

Graduate School Resources for Undocumented Students

Frequently Asked Questions About Graduate School for Undocumented Students

Can undocumented students go to graduate school? true

Yes. There is no federal law keeping undocumented students from applying and attending grad school. Some schools, however, do not accept undocumented students.

Can DACA students apply to graduate school? true

Yes. Both DACA and undocumented students can apply to graduate school. In some cases, DACA students may have an easier time applying because their documentation may be more accessible.

How can undocumented students pay for graduate school?

Undocumented students can pay for graduate school in various ways, including utilizing personal finances, private loans, assistantships, fellowships, scholarships, and grants. Many states and schools offer awards to undocumented students, and scholarships often allow applicants to apply without revealing citizenship information.

Can undocumented students go to law school?

Yes. To apply, however, prospective learners need to take the LSAT, which requires valid government-issued identification. Candidates may request to take the test with an alternate ID by contacting the Law School Admission Council.

Financial Aid Review by:

Mary Louis is a Brooklyn native who currently resides in Nashville, where she works at a state community college. She has worked in financial aid and recruitment as a registrar and bursar at city, state, for-profit, and Ivy League institutions, as well as at HBCUs. Louis' financial aid experience includes writing policies and procedures; overseeing satisfactory academic progress, state and federal aid, scholarships, private education lending, and federal verification; and assisting families with completing the FAFSA.


Anti-Bias Review by:

Dr. Susana M. Muñoz is Associate Professor of higher education, Program Coordinator of the Higher Education Leadership (HEL) Program, and Co-Director of CSU initiatives for the Race and Intersectional Studies for Educational Equity (RISE) Center in the School of Education at Colorado State University (CSU).

Her scholarly interests center on the experiences of minoritized populations in higher education. Specifically, Dr. Muñoz focuses her research on issues of equity, identity, and campus climate for undocumented Latinx students, while employing perspectives such as legal violence, racist nativism, and Chicana feminist epistemology to identify and dismantle power, oppression, and inequities as experienced by these populations. She utilizes multiple research methods as mechanisms to examine these matters with the ultimate goal of informing immigration policy and higher education practices.

Dr. Muñoz has been honored by the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics for her teaching and research. She was also recognized as a Salzburg Global Fellow and named one of the "top 25 most influential women in higher education" by Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine. She also brings 13 years of student affairs experience in multicultural affairs, Greek life, diversity and leadership training, TRiO programs, and residence life.

Meet the Students

Judith is an incoming law student at Indiana University's Robert H. McKinney School of Law and an ICLEO Fellow. She is also a part-time court reporter for Clinton Superior Court in Indiana.

Judith attended Wingate University where she graduated with summa cum laude honors in May of 2020. She identifies as a first-generation student and recipient of a full-ride scholarship through the Golden Door Scholars program. Her father's near deportation in her junior year of high school inspired Judith to pursue a law degree so she could one day defend immigrant, working-class families.

After receiving her law degree, Judith plans to start her legal career as a pauper attorney in her hometown of Frankfort, Indiana, and specialize in criminal and immigration law.

Ricardo is a first-year medical student and North Carolina native. Ricardo has a professional interest in family medicine and aspires to be someone his patients can trust and come to for anything. He also has a keen interest in both sports medicine and community service, and strives to always be as involved in the community as much as possible. Additionally, Ricardo works as a Spanish tutor and volunteers as an interpreter at a free clinic.

Feature Image: Ariel Skelley / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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