As an undocumented student, paying for college is one of the greatest challenges you are likely to face. Whether you’re planning to attend online college or you’re seeking a traditional campus, your status as an undocumented student will present some financial hurdles. Below, we outline some of these hurdles and offer access to a few important resources including tips on completing (or not completing) your FAFSA, obtaining student aid, shopping for scholarships and identifying cost-effective opportunities for a high-quality education.
Undocumented students face an array of challenges to educational financing, even those with DACA status. While you are eligible to apply to, and enroll in, college:
- 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, which could limit your ability to choose the most affordable options;
- You may lack the familial support structure available to many native-born students; and
- You may face an array of restrictions around applying for jobs or working to finance your education
There are still ways to get help financing your education, including student aid and in-state tuition rates from certain states, scholarships, and affordable learning options. Read on to learn more about paying for college as an undocumented student.
Navigating Your FAFSA
Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is typically an important step in the college application process, particularly for those who are eligible for federal financial aid. However, for immigrant and undocumented students, the value of a completed FAFSA can vary. In fact, 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. You should have full access to the same opportunities for federal aid as any natural born 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…
You are not eligible for federal financial aid, but there may still be some value in completing your FAFSA. The FAFSA will typically require applicants to have a Social Security number and a valid driver’s license or state identification. As a DACA recipient, you should have the proper documentation to provide identification. However, you will not have a Social Security number. No other number can be substituted here. Simply skip this question.
Again, while completion of the FAFSA will not give you access to federal aid, 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. This process can also help prepare you to apply for certain scholarships. Moreover, for undocumented students who have qualified as Dreamers, it may be possible to participate in an on-campus work-study program.
With that said, there are several notes of caution. First, under Donald Trump’s authority, the executive branch is working to dismantle the DACA policy and many of the rights and protections it affords current recipients. If this effort succeeds, it would have an immediate and threatening impact on the residency status of qualified DACA recipients.
This alone may make you hesitant to submit any forms to the federal government. Your hesitation is probably 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 complete and print out your FAFSA, then submit it directly to your college, 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 information to the federal government. In most cases, your college or university will be both ethically committed and legally obligated to keep any information about your citizenship status private.
If you are an undocumented student…
You are not eligible for federal financial aid and you will not likely have the proper identification or documentation to complete a FAFSA for submission to the federal government. Moreover, your uncertain legal status makes any attempt to submit an online FAFSA highly inadvisable.
However, there may still be some value in completing a FAFSA form without submitting it to the federal government. Consider filling out your FAFSA, printing it out, and deleting your online account without completing submission.
The process of completing your FAFSA can help you line up your documents and information so that you can apply for assistance where you are eligible. This may be directly through your college, through private scholarship foundations, or through an on-campus career-placement agency. Be aware that many of these opportunities may be accessible only to DACA recipients. However, if you can present a hard copy of your FAFSA to a counselor, financial aid office, or any number of scholarship groups, it could make it a lot easier to match you up with opportunities for financial support.
Because DACA is currently under assault by the executive branch, all of this must be considered through a lens of great uncertainty. No new applications are being considered, which means many young undocumented students are being deprived the status needed to prove eligibility for, or receive, assistance.
It also remains unclear how two-year DACA renewal applications will be handled or if existing DACA protections will even survive through current court-wrangling. This means that for undocumented students who are shopping for schools, and even more urgently, for those who currently count on state-based 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.
Read here for more on your Rights as an Undocumented Student.
Note: Whether you are a DACA recipient or an undocumented student, you are advised never to misrepresent information submitted on your financial aid forms. It is more advisable to leave items blank if you feel your answers could jeopardize your status.)
State by State Access
Your ability to access student aid and in-state tuition rates will depend in part on the state where you plan to attend college. The rules differ for every state. This is something you’ll need to consider as you apply 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, some 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 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:
The following states have passed laws that explicitly prohibit undocumented students from receiving financial aid:
The following states have laws that prohibit undocumented students from attending public college or universities altogether:
Scholarships for Undocumented Students
One of the best ways to access financial support for your college education is to explore the world of scholarships and grants, specifically those earmarked for immigrant and undocumented students. In the vast majority of cases, you will be eligible to apply for such scholarships regardless of your legal status.
This means that you should consider your eligibility for this array of scholarships regardless of whether you have qualified for financial aid or in-state tuition rates. A great scholarship can help to either supplement these benefits or compensate for them if you lack eligibility.
- Dedicated to removing financial obstacles to higher education for low-income students and prioritizes undocumented students among its served demographics.
- Hispanic Scholarship Fund
- Awards merit-based scholarships to students of Hispanic ethnicity at the high school, community, university, and graduate school levels.
- The Dream.US
- Supports DACA recipients and undocumented students in overcoming financial barriers standing in the way of a college education.
As an undocumented student, your opportunities for scholarship support are not limited strictly to your ethnicity or legal status. You may also be eligible for a wider range of scholarships relating to academic performance, athletic participation, financial need, religious affiliation, LGBTQ identification, and a whole spectrum of other factors.
Expand your search for financial help by looking at our Scholarship Directory.
Affordable College Options
Of course, one of the best ways to finance your higher education is to begin with an affordable school. Depending on your educational and professional goals, you have a lot of different options:
- Check out The Best Colleges Providing Free Tuition for a look at some of the schools providing online education at either low cost (i.e. just basic fees) or entirely free of charge.
- Check out The 50 Best Community Colleges in the United States for public two-year schools providing access to high-quality, low-cost associate degree programs.
- Check out The 50 Most Affordable Online Colleges for Bachelor’s Degrees for a look at the best four-year online programs for your money.
- Check out the 50 Best Online Colleges for 2019 for an encompassing look at the very best in online degree programs.
- And visit our Affordable Colleges Source for a comprehensive guide on the cost of college and how you can lower your own costs.
Finally, for a closer look at high-quality and cost-effective degree programs for undocumented students, check out our Undocumented Students Guide to Online College.