Financial Aid for Undocumented Students
| TBS Staff
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Applying for college financial aid is a difficult process, and it's even more complicated for students without U.S. citizenship. This guide seeks to help undocumented learners navigate their financial aid options.IR A LA VERSIÓN INGLESA DE ESTA PÁGINA
Undocumented students — even those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status — face unique challenges financing their education. Whether you're planning to attend online college or seeking a traditional campus experience, your status as an undocumented student makes your financial situation difficult to navigate. For example:
- You are not eligible for federal financial aid.
- You may not be eligible for in-state tuition rates in certain states.
- You may be restricted from attending certain schools in your states, some of which are the most affordable options.
- You may lack the familial support structure available to other students.
- You may face restrictions around applying for jobs or working to finance your education.
However, you still have financial aid options, including student aid, in-state tuition rates in certain states, scholarships, and affordable learning options. Below, we outline the common obstacles undocumented students face and offer access to important resources. Here, you'll find tips about completing (or not completing) your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), obtaining student aid, shopping for scholarships, and identifying cost-effective opportunities for a high-quality education.
Navigating Your FAFSA
Completing the FAFSA is an important step in the college application process, particularly for those who are eligible for federal financial aid. However, filling out the FAFSA for undocumented students or DACA recipients can be a risky prospect. Depending on your situation, you may even be advised not to submit a FAFSA to the federal government.
If you are an immigrant student with full citizenship or naturalization status...
You should complete your FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal financial aid. By law, you have access to the same opportunities for federal aid as any other American citizen. If you are deprived of these opportunities for any reason relating to your nationality or immigrant status, contact the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education to file a discrimination grievance.
If you are a DACA recipient...
The FAFSA application process requires a social security number, a state of residence, and tax information. DACA recipients should consult with their high school guidance counselors, admissions specialists, or financial aid offices before completing a FAFSA, to assess individual financial aid options and eligibility. While DACA recipients are not eligible for federal financial aid, filling out the FAFSA helps them access state and other financial aid.
However, DACA recipients must remain aware of the ever-changing legal and political landscape. When the Trump administration pushed to limit rights for DACA recipients — with additional threats of deportation — submitting a FAFSA became risky for DACA students. As immigration officials became more forceful, colleges and universities began to implement policies to support undocumented students. Formal statements by campus administrators accompanied campus-wide programs to embrace diversity and inclusiveness.
Many colleges and universities provide services and protections for DACA recipients and undocumented students. Multicultural and bilingual staff help students to understand their legal rights, access financial and community support, and gain insight into available protections. Some institutions even have partnerships with law offices and advocate groups.
In 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States supported DACA recipients' access to work and education in the U.S., but did not eliminate future threats to their security. For the time being, DACA recipients pursuing postsecondary education have access to state financial aid and special resources provided by individual states and institutions.
If you are an undocumented student...
While ineligible for federal financial aid, undocumented students may still have access to state and private funding opportunities. Pursing these options can often feel vulnerable for undocumented students, but the truth is no one has the right to ask about their legal status. Similarly, guidance counselors, admissions staff, and financial aid specialists cannot disclose a student's legal status without their permission.
The availability of financial aid varies by state and institution. For example, states like California, Florida, and New York have policies that explicitly provide resident tuition and financial aid opportunities for undocumented students, while Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio have implemented restrictive guidelines about tuition and aid alike. When searching for states and institutions that demonstrate support for undocumented students, individuals should also be aware of colleges and universities that openly express hostility for undocumented learners.
When researching schools, undocumented candidates should consider educational support groups, student advocacy initiatives, and available legal resources. This information is typically available online, but contacting an institution directly may be the best way for immigrant and undocumented students to understand the institution's culture.
Whether or not immigrant and undocumented students can apply to the DACA program remains unclear. The Supreme Court ruling in 2020 protected current DACA recipients, creating a pathway for renewal applications. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services should also accept initial applications, but future attempts to limit DACA may arise from the executive branch.
Your ability to access student aid and in-state tuition rates depends on the state where you plan to attend college. The rules differ for every state, which is something you'll need to consider when applying for colleges.
Some states have passed legislation helping undocumented students access public universities, receive in-state tuition rates, and qualify for state or institutional financial aid. By contrast, other states have laws restricting educational opportunities, including denial of access to public universities and ineligibility for in-state tuition rates or financial aid.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2020, 17 U.S. states have created legislation allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates, though practice varies. Four states grant access to local tuition rates for undocumented students through their state Boards of Regents. The state of Virginia provides in-state tuition eligibility only for undocumented students with DACA status. Among states that offer in-state tuition rates, seven also allow access to state financial aid.
Three states have passed laws that explicitly prohibit undocumented students from receiving financial aid. Alabama and South Carolina prohibit undocumented students from attending public colleges or universities altogether.
You can explore state tuition and financial aid access rules in the map below:
State Financial Aid Access for Undocumented Students
Source: National Center of State Legislators
Scholarships for Undocumented Students
Prospective enrollees should research grants and other forms of funding, including scholarships specifically for undocumented students. In the vast majority of cases, you can apply for such scholarships despite your legal status.
Eligibility for these scholarships is unrelated to eligibility for financial aid or in-state tuition rates. A scholarship can supplement state benefits or compensate for them if you lack eligibility. Below are a few scholarship opportunities available for undocumented students.
QuestBridge aims to remove financial obstacles to higher education for low-income students. It prioritizes undocumented students among its served demographics.
This annual fund awards merit-based scholarships to students of Hispanic ethnicity at the high school, community, university, and graduate school levels. This scholarship is available to DACA recipients.
Designed to help undocumented and non-resident students, the California Dream Act provides funding to students who attend eligible California colleges, universities, and career education programs. Applicants must submit a paper or online application for consideration each academic year.
This organization supports DACA recipients and undocumented students in overcoming financial barriers standing in the way of a college education.
The Golden Door Scholar program supports DACA recipients and eligible nonresident students who demonstrate academic excellence, leadership experience, and community engagement. Recipients can attend one of Golden Door Scholars' partner schools or an institution of their choosing.
As an undocumented student, your scholarship opportunities are not limited strictly to your ethnicity or legal status. You may also apply for scholarships related to academic performance, athletic participation, financial need, and LGBTQ+ identification, among many other factors. Expand your search for financial help with our scholarship directory.
Frequently Asked Questions
Many individuals believe undocumented immigrants can not attend college, but in reality, there are no federal prohibitions to prevent enrollment. However, some states — like Alabama and South Carolina — restrict undocumented students from attending public colleges and universities, while other states restrict eligibility for resident tuition discounts.
For the most part, undocumented immigrants can apply to colleges and universities through the same avenues as their fellow students. Individuals with strong academic backgrounds, stellar community involvement, and high test scores on entrance exams can access higher education, like all other applicants.
DACA students — especially those with work authorizations — may have valid social security numbers, though students do not need a valid social security number to apply to or attend college in the United States.
However, an individual without a social security number cannot apply for federal financial aid. They also may not be able to obtain a driver's license, apply for a credit card, or open a bank account, though these restrictions can vary by state.
When an undocumented student applies to a college or university, they should check the institution's policies and any state restrictions. Admissions specialists and offices that provide services to international students can facilitate the application process.
Colleges and universities across the United States accept undocumented students, but there is no universal mandate on the matter. States with restrictions include Arizona and Ohio, while undocumented immigrants find more inclusive acceptance policies in places like Washington, Illinois, and Virginia. Several states, including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Alaska, have no stipulations about undocumented students and access to higher education.
In general, undocumented students — even DACA recipients — are not eligible for federal financial aid. Instead, DACA students can apply for aid provided through individual states, institutions, or private funders. DACA students with a social security number can complete a FAFSA to determine their eligibility.
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