As an undocumented student, you are legally permitted to go to college in the United States. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.
Undocumented students in the U.S. face a time of tremendous uncertainty. It’s hard enough adjusting to a new culture, finding your footing in a new country, learning a new language, and navigating a new campus. But unpredictable changes in our immigration policies are clouding the picture for countless immigrant families and young people. Visit our growing set of support resources to learn more about the laws, rights, and opportunities impacting immigrant and undocumented students. Or read on to find out exactly what you need to know before beginning your college education in the United States.
No sugarcoating reality: this is a scary time to be undocumented in America. The rising cultures of fear, prejudice, and scapegoating have translated into policy initiatives that make a very real, tangible, and negative impact on immigrant communities, including the undocumented students working hard to advance in America’s schools.
The barriers to education facing undocumented students are become greater and more foreboding. As this happens, we’ll do our best to help guide you down the narrow pathway to educational success.
Five things you absolutely must know as an undocumented student seeking a college education in the U.S.:
- The institutional hurdles you’ll face
- The changing (read: decaying) legal landscape
- Variations in admission rules from one state to the next
- How you can (or can’t) apply for financial aid
- Key resources to help you in your pursuit of a college degree and — we hope in the future — full, legal citizenship
1.It’s Legal, But It’s Not Easy
Every year, 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from high school in the United States. However, less than 10% continue to college. Far fewer than that complete college and earn a degree.
It’s not a mystery why:
- Undocumented students are generally not eligible for federal financial aid, meaning most students must find alternate ways to receive or finance an education.
- Some states simply won’t admit undocumented students into community or public schools, which are often among the more affordable and accessible options.
- Some colleges, regardless of state, won’t enroll undocumented students as a matter of school policy.
- While state financial aid, scholarships, advocacy groups, and other resources exist to support undocumented students, language barriers, cultural isolation, and fear of legal complications often prevent immigrants from seeking, being aware of, or knowing how to access such resources.
- If you are here on a student visa, there may be certain restrictions around employment, which can add difficulty to financing your education.
- Changing federal law, particularly the inconsistency surrounding the DREAM Act, DACA, and the Trump-era rollbacks, have cast the legal status of immigrants and undocumented students — many of whom have lived in the United States nearly their entire lives — into uncertainty and legal turmoil.
- Some undocumented students may not even be aware that they are eligible to attend colleges and universities in the United States.
The good news is that as an undocumented student, you actually are eligible to attend college. In spite of the limitations and obstacles, if you are able to access and complete a college degree program, it could significantly improve your chances of remaining in the United States and advance your professional fortunes.
Still, we’d be lying if we said we were tremendously confident about the immediate outlook for immigrant rights in America. As an undocumented student, your paths to success and citizenship are only getting more treacherous. America’s immigration laws are not just in a state of flux. They are in a state of outright chaos.
Donald Trump campaigned on the rhetoric of xenophobia, promised a giant border wall as the centerpiece of his platform, rode the wave of anti-immigrant fervor into the White House, and has since repaid his supporters with travel bans, family separations, and haphazardly executed rollbacks on protections for immigrants and undocumented Americans.
Many of these policy initiatives have raised serious constitutional questions. As a result, the most consequential of Trump’s maneuvers have been challenged in the judicial branch. But this means America’s immigration laws are currently in a state of upheaval. For undocumented students, the result is chaos.
2.You Have Rights, but They Can Change
To understand this state of upheaval, you must understand DACA, which is admittedly so convoluted that some of our lawmakers have only a limited grasp on its implications. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative was created in 2012 under President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security. DACA was an extension of the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation introduced to Congress in 2001 with the intention to provide pathways to legal status and eventual citizenship for immigrants who arrived here as minors.
Though the DREAM Act was never passed into law, it provided both the name Dreamer to describe these young undocumented Americas, and it created a framework for providing structured protection to deserving immigrants — those attending school, maintaining gainful employment, and otherwise free from criminal convictions. DACA provided a temporary fix for the absence of legislation, an executive decision that gave hundreds of thousands of young immigrants the chance to obtain legal status, and consequently, opportunities that included access to education, work, and most importantly, freedom from legal persecution.
More than 700,000 young immigrants have qualified for Dreamer status under DACA since its inception. All applicants who have been previously determined eligible must reapply for this status every two years.
Sadly, the absence of binding legislation provided a ready opportunity for the Trump administration to unravel DACA. In September 2017, his administration announced the wind-down of the program, including the decision to cease taking new applications.
Efforts to dismantle DACA have been among Trump’s most controversial immigration moves. This strategy explicitly targets protections aimed at young people, often individuals who arrived in the United States as children or even infants, many of whom speak only English, and who have never known another country as home. Under the current policy orientation, the threat of deportation is real for undocumented individuals who consider themselves American by every measure but legal status.
In January 2018, a court order blocked the administration’s DACA rollbacks. While no new applications are being accepted, those with Dreamer status remain protected … at least for the time being. This matter will continue to play out in the courts however, which means that the future is hazy even for those who already have Dreamer status.
If you have earned Dreamer status, we advise that you make the most of it while you can. If you haven’t already found a way to enroll in college, gaining enrollment now could grant you access to a Student Visa, which would be one of your best paths to temporary legal status and a longer stay in the United States regardless of DACA’s legal fluctuation.
Current DACA status may translate to a wider array of educational options — including more public school options — and even some opportunities for state-based aid or scholarship assistance. Take advantage of your opportunities while they still exist. It’s hard to say exactly what the future holds for Dreamers, but at present, you can apply to a public college or university anywhere in the U.S.
If you have not received DACA status, you are still legally entitled to apply to a college or university. However, various bureaucratic and financial obstacles will likely limit your options.
Still, be assured that you are not violating any laws, nor should you feel that you are at risk of deportation, for either applying to or attending a college or university. Moreover, The Family Education Right at Privacy Act (FERPA) forbids school officials from disclosing personal information about students. This includes your immigration status, so you are allowed to discuss this matter openly with teachers, counselors, and other faculty. In fact, school personnel can be an important source of support and guidance as you learn about your options, your rights, and the protections afforded to you as a student.
In general, remaining informed on the laws impacting undocumented students is essential. An important part of defending your rights, protecting your status, and advancing your education will be staying up to date on developments relating to DACA, Dreamers, and the broader immigration landscape in the U.S. There are a few resources that aim to keep you up to speed. Make sure you bookmark and refer to these resources as you navigate both your education and your residency.
- Visit the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) for a detailed explanation of the history and immediate policy changes impacting Dreamers, as well as ongoing updates on legislative changes, executive actions, and both judicial and advocacy-based efforts to protect Dreamers.
- Visit DREAM Education Justice Program at United We Dream for education-specific support relating to your Dreamer status and opportunities for educational advancement.
- Jump to the bottom for a longer listing of support resources for undocumented students.
3.Your Access Varies By State
Every college has its own policy on admitting undocumented students. Public or private, some schools simply won’t admit students who don’t have legal status. Part of your college search process must include a clear understanding of each prospective school’s policies and how they relate to your status.
This is true on a state by state basis as well. Opportunities will vary according state, as will attitudes toward immigrant populations and your likelihood of feeling comfortable and welcomed.
Laws impacting your eligibility to attend a public university, receive state-based financial aid, or pay in-state rates vary widely. Some states have laws designed to assist undocumented students seeking admission to public universities, including access to in-state tuition rates or state financial aid. Some states have laws restricting these opportunities. A big part of both accessing and financing your education will depend on your state of residence.
If you have met the terms for DACA eligibility, your temporary legal status grants you the right to apply to any public college or university, regardless of state laws. The cost of that school is another matter, however. Immaterial of DACA status, some states allow for undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition rates for public schools, which are typically significantly lower than out-of-state, or international, tuition rates. Some states have laws prohibiting schools from providing the lower in-state rate to undocumented students. Try choosing a public school in a state that allows undocumented students to pay in-state rates. It could make an enormous difference in the cost of your education.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2015, 16 U.S. states have created legislation allowing for undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates:
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
In addition, decisions initiated through state Boards of Regents have created access to local tuition rates for undocumented students attending state university systems in:
The state of Virginia provides in-state tuition eligibility only to those undocumented students with Dreamer status under DACA.
Among those listed above, there are six states that currently provide both in-state tuition rates and access to state financial aid:
These are states in which you might be well-served by completing and printing a FAFSA form [PDF], which you can then bring to your school’s financial aid office for further submission guidance.
You should make note that the following states have passed laws that explicitly prohibit undocumented students from receiving financial aid:
Also note that the following states have laws that prohibit undocumented students from attending public college or universities altogether:
These prohibitions impact undocumented students without legal status. DACA recipients are eligible to attend any public colleges or university in these states as long as legal status remains. That said, a state’s policy orientation toward undocumented students can be a strong indication of the type of cultural environment that awaits you, regardless of your status. Choosing a state that takes steps to welcome and advocate for undocumented students may help you land in a positive environment.
Some cities, regions, and states even have sanctuary policies, both official and unofficial, that run the gamut from passively declining to support federal immigration enforcement efforts to actively obstructing federal efforts at cracking down on local immigrant communities. Finding a school enveloped in a community like this may not only add a layer of insulation against the rising tide of federal anti-immigrant action, but it is also a likely indicator that your new community maintains an inclusive culture that is welcoming of new arrivals.
This can help you acclimate while enjoying some protection, and perhaps even locating friends, neighbors, and classmates who share your background and experience.
4.To FAFSA or Not to FAFSA
As an undocumented student, you face both financial and bureaucratic challenges. These challenges are considerably greater if you haven’t achieved DACA status.
For instance, some colleges may require you to provide either a Social Security number or a valid driver’s license/state ID during the application process. While DACA recipients will likely have the proper documentation in lieu of these materials, undocumented students without DACA status likely will not. This limits the number of options available to students with status. One of these limitations is the ability to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
All undocumented students — DACA recipients and non-DACA immigrants alike — are ineligible for federal financial aid. However, some universities and states may provide aid to undocumented students on a need-basis. If you are a DACA recipient, filling out your FAFSA could help you determine eligibility for financial aid either through your university or your state. It can also help you prepare your application for certain scholarships.
That said, during this challenging political time, many undocumented students are understandably hesitant to submit any documentation to the federal government. This hesitation may be justified.
If you are concerned that submitting a FAFSA to the federal government could jeopardize your status or safety, do not submit your FAFSA online. Instead, you are advised to print out your FAFSA and submit it directly to your college [PDF], university, or scholarship association. This approach should provide your school or scholarship committee with the information needed to determine your aid or grant eligibility without transmitting this same information to the federal government.
The process can also help you line up your documents and information to apply for additional assistance, whether directly through your college, through private scholarship foundations, or through an on-campus career-placement agency.
Again though, these are opportunities that largely apply to DACA recipients, which makes the current legal mess especially problematic. With no new applications being considered, countless young Dreamers are being deprived the status needed to receive assistance or, in many cases, even prove eligibility for attendance at most colleges.
Further, it remains unclear how two-year renewal applications will be handled or if existing DACA protections will even survive through court-wrangling. This means that for undocumented students who are shopping for schools, and even more urgently, for those who currently count on state-aid to attend college, any movement on DACA is extremely consequential. Wherever you fall on this spectrum — an aspiring DACA recipient or one simply hoping to retain your status — you’ll want to pay close attention to this legal battlefront.
5.Find Support and Utilize Resources
As we’ve stressed throughout, you have a right to seek a college education, but you’ll have a harder time procuring that right than students with full legal status. Use the resources and support networks available to you to help overcome legal, financial, and institutional barriers.
Your first stop should be your university’s own support network. As you seek out colleges and universities, find out if the schools on your list have Centers for Undocumented Students. Such centers are especially common on campuses in states with large immigrant populations such as California and Texas, and can signal a level of comfort with and preparedness for undocumented populations.
These centers can also open a few important doors for you. Among them, this may be a pathway to guidance in the financial aid or scholarship application process, an avenue to academic support services such as tutoring and English Language Learning (ELL), and a way to connect with immigrant community groups, cultural support networks, legal counsel, or mental health support, among many other things.
Make it a major priority during your college search to identify schools with the proper infrastructure in place to support the needs of undocumented students. It could make a world of difference at every step of the way.
You’ll also want to take your own steps to remain informed and connected. Start with a few of these key resources:
- Legal Match provides a search portal that allows you to pinpoint and contact immigration attorneys specializing in your case needs.
- American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) details the history and immediate policy changes impacting Dreamers, as well as ongoing updates on legislative changes, executive actions, and both judicial and advocacy-based efforts to protect Dreamers.
- The DREAM Education Justice Program at United We Dream offers education-specific support relating to the Dreamer status and opportunities for educational advancement.
- TheDream.us offers scholarships for Dreamers aimed at helping DACA recipients channel their legal status into higher education opportunities.
- Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC) is an association of educators, administrators, and other education professionals dedicated to protecting and advocating for the rights of immigrant and undocumented students.
- The American Immigration Council uses the courts to demand and ensure fair judicial process for immigrants and undocumented residents.
This list of resources is useful but by no means exhaustive. In many instances, these resources will serve as portals to a wealth of contacts, advocacy networks, educational materials, legal action hotlines, scholarships, and community groups. Knowledge and awareness are your best defense against unfair targeting or abuse, and your best instruments for accessing, financing, and succeeding in college.
Immigration policies are truly in a state of flux, creating a great deal of uncertainty for undocumented students and immigrant communities on the whole. Even less clear than today’s immigration policies is the question of where these laws will stand in the not-too-distant future.
Unfortunately, we can’t change, or necessarily even clarify the muddy laws of the land. However, we do pledge at The Quad and TBS to do everything we can to guide, support, and root for your success.
Stay tuned in the coming months as we unveil a whole new set of resources and materials designed to help all our immigrant and undocumented friends gain access to a quality education and a brighter future.