As an undocumented student, you are legally entitled to apply to most public colleges in the United States. However, you may not necessarily be eligible for federal financial aid, in-state tuition rates, or other advantages afforded those with permanent citizenship. There are also some states in the U.S. that carry more restrictive rules around access and eligibility, both for admission and financial support. These factors should all figure into the college you choose, whether you’re seeking an education at an online college or on a traditional campus.
In addition to factors like access and affordability, you’ll want to consider the legal status of undocumented students in the state where you’re seeking admission, as well as the general culture in the region or on the campus where you intend to earn your degree. These factors can all have a significant impact on your experience and on your ability succeed in your higher education.
Legal and Practical Challenges Facing Undocumented Students
Before you choose the best school for your needs, it’s important to understand some of the limitations and challenges that can shape this decision for undocumented students. There are a number of legal, practical and financial variables that you’ll need to consider as you seek a college, whether online or on-campus. Among them:
- Undocumented students are usually not eligible for federal financial aid, and therefore must find alternate ways to finance a college education.
- Some states won’t admit undocumented students into community or public schools, which are often among the more affordable and accessible options.
- Some private colleges, regardless of state, won’t admit 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.
- Constantly 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.
These factors shape an educational landscape that can be hard to navigate if you’re an undocumented student. Below, you’ll find a number of pathways designed to help you jump hurdles and work around barriers on your way to a degree.
For more on America’s ever-shifting immigration laws and policies, check out Undocumented Students, DACA, and the Law: Key Legislation.
Otherwise, read on for tips on choosing the best school for your situation.
Choose the Right State For Your Education
Every state has its own rules and procedures relating to undocumented students. Opportunities for access and affordability will vary according to state, as will attitudes toward immigrant populations. This means that your chances of feeling safe, comfortable and welcomed will also vary from state to state.
One of the first steps in your selection process should be to determine which states serve your needs both legally and financially. This is true whether you plan to attend a traditional college or pursue your degree online. In either instance, the policies and practices for your college’s state of residency will apply.
According to the National Council 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
Among these, there are six states that currently provide not only in-state tuition rates but also access to state financial aid:
- New Mexico
In addition, decisions initiated through state Boards of Regents have created access to local tuition rates for undocumented students attending state university systems in:
- Rhode Island
The state of Virginia provides in-state tuition eligibility only to those undocumented students with Dreamer status under DACA.
The above-noted are states in which you might be well-served by completing and printing a FAFSA form, which you can then bring to your school’s financial aid office for further submission guidance. [Note: If you are an undocumented student, you are strongly advised not to submit your FAFSA online, but to provide only a hard-copy to personnel at your institution.]
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 for universities altogether:
- South Carolina
All prohibitions aside, DACA recipients are eligible to attend any public colleges or university in any state. However, as an undocumented student, you can consider the legal orientation of a state toward undocumented students as a strong indication of its cultural attitude toward immigrant populations. If possible, you will be best-served by seeking schools located in states that both welcome and advocate for undocumented students.
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 is welcoming of new arrivals and inclusive in its culture. This makes searching for the right college by state a particularly good strategy for undocumented students.
Look for “Sanctuary Campuses”
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.
Ultimately, your best opportunity for a positive educational experience will be in an environment that is not just welcoming to undocumented students but accommodating to your unique set of needs. The right college campus can actually be your strongest source of advocacy against unfair targeting by immigration officers or law enforcement personnel.
Many college campuses offer extensive resources outlining your rights and ensuring that you fully understand how to protect them, as well as providing direct legal counsel and advocacy. Moreover, in the current atmosphere, many college and university campuses have stated unequivocally that they will continue to provide sanctuary for their undocumented students, including providing a legal bulwark against inappropriate federal intrusion.
Look for schools that have taken a stand against aggressive immigration enforcement tactics, as well as those that have issued statements or policies indicating their intent to protect undocumented students within their respective communities. In addition to serving as a positive educational experience, this type of community could help to strengthen your safety, security, and standing in the U.S.
The American Association of College Professors recently issued a statement in support of the Sanctuary Campus Movement, which includes notable signees such as Rutgers University, Ohio University, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, and Cornell, to name just a few.
Visit the AAUP for more on the Sanctuary Campus Movement and find out which campuses have adopted resolutions or petitions in support of this movement.
Choose an Hispanic Serving Institutions
With immigration from Mexico accounting for 26% of all immigration to the U.S. in 2016, and a reported 43% of immigrants speaking Spanish in the household, Hispanic students form the largest subsection of undocumented students working toward a degree in the U.S. For this reason, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) may represent a uniquely supportive and accessible opportunity for many individuals in this population.
Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) are accredited colleges and universities that serve student bodies with a greater than 25% Hispanic student population. The designation was officially established by Congress in 1992 in order to earmark federal grant funding for the advancement of schools with large Hispanic populations. Federal funding may be used for purposes that include faculty development, administrative management, development of academic programs and curriculum, teaching equipment, renovation, counseling, tutoring, and student support.
HSIs may be particularly sympathetic to and accommodating of your needs if you are an undocumented student of Hispanic background. HSIs may be either two-year or four-year programs, and many offer online courses and degrees. Check here for complete list of HSIs as of the 2016-2017 academic year.
The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) is also a great resource for exploring HSIs. The HACU is the leading association of HSIs and the organization responsible for helping to create the HSI designation through advocacy and political action. In addition to these activities, the HACU helps to provide scholarships, create job opportunities, and provide critical education and information on issues impacting Hispanic Americans and, specifically, Hispanic students.
If you are an undocumented student of Hispanic background, consider reaching out to the HACU for tips on how to navigate the HSI landscape for the very best opportunities.
Choose an Online College
As an undocumented student, the right online college can offer a few advantages that are worth considering, including:
- The ability to take classes from a safe and private location;
- Access to schools outside your state of residence;
- The ability to space out your courses while balancing other practical, legal, and financial challenges; and
- Affordable options regardless of financial aid eligibility.
- Tuition Free Online Schools
- Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
- Modern States' Freshman Year for Free
- University of the People and other non-profit online schools
These unique qualities and innovative options make online college an attractive avenue for undocumented students facing any combination of legal, practical, and financial challenges.
Begin your search by checking out our list of the 50 Best Online Colleges for 2019. These schools offer some of the greatest flexibility and the best value for your money. This list also lets you see the best online colleges by state and answers some frequently asked questions about online college.
And because the cost of college will most definitely be a factor if you aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, check out The 50 Most Affordable Online Colleges for Bachelor’s Degrees.
Return to our Undocumented Students Guide to College for more essential tips, links, and resources.