Colleges Accepting Undocumented Students

TBS Staff Writers
Updated February 26, 2024
Undocumented students, immigrant students, and refugees have the right to attend college.

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Legal and Practical Challenges Facing Undocumented Students

Though undocumented immigrants can attend college in the U.S., they often encounter legal and practical barriers when pursuing higher education. Many of these problems become apparent when students begin evaluating four-year colleges or attempting to access financial aid. An undocumented student needs to carefully consider several factors when charting their educational path.

First, undocumented students do not qualify for any form of federal aid, which means they are limited to private scholarships, grants, and institutional or state-level aid. Secondly, many schools — especially public schools in states that disqualify undocumented students from paying in-state tuition rates — may choose to reject applications from undocumented immigrants.

Though no state or federal laws bar undocumented students from attending college, recommendations from state governments and policies from the school admissions boards can create obstacles for them anyway.

Undocumented students must look for institutions deemed “sanctuary schools” rather than choosing a school based on academic considerations alone.

Although DACA allows undocumented immigrants to legally attend college, the program’s legal ambiguity leaves many students in a perpetuate a state of anxiety. The threat of deportation may disincentivize colleges from admitting undocumented students and make the students themselves worry about the feasibility of finishing their degrees.

The repealed announcement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would not allow international students to remain in the U.S. if schools went online has also led to problems. Under that rule, undocumented students attending colleges that treat them as international students suddenly faced the possibility of having to stop their studies. While that rule was repealed, ICE could instate another one unexpectedly at any time.

Other legal issues further affect undocumented immigrants’ access to college, many of them exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the CARES act, which has kept many students afloat, excludes undocumented students from receiving emergency aid. As a result, those students will find it much harder to remain in school throughout the crisis.

Things to Consider When Choosing a College

Undocumented students should keep a few considerations in mind when choosing colleges. Most importantly, remember that different states have different policies towards undocumented college students, and not all colleges support undocumented learners equally. When evaluating schools, give preference to the institutions and states that are most accepting of your undocumented status.

Find the Right State For Your Education

When shopping for a college or university, undocumented immigrants must carefully consider state policies, which can affect how much they pay for college, whether they can access state financial aid, and even whether they may attend a public college at all.

Whether undocumented students can pay in-state tuition depends on the school in question, as each state has a different policy. Virginia, for example, will grant in-state tuition rates for undocumented students with DACA status, but not for those without.

Eighteen states currently allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates based on recommendations made by state legislation, while other states allow their Boards of Regents to set those guidelines. In both cases, an undocumented student must hold a high school diploma or GED certificate to qualify for in-state tuition.

Six states, including California, Washington, and Oregon, allow undocumented students to access state financial aid. While they still lack access to federal aid, this provision makes it easier for undocumented students to pay for college.

Other states bar undocumented students from paying in-state tuition rates, which makes it more difficult pay for schooling. Two states — Alabama and South Carolina — currently bar undocumented students from enrolling in public colleges altogether. Undocumented residents in these states must either pay more to attend a private college or move out of state and pay out-of-state tuition rates at another public school system.

In the remaining states, undocumented students do not experience any kind of special status regarding enrollment.

State Financial Aid Access for Undocumented Students

Choose Your State Below

Look for “Sanctuary Campuses”

In recent years, some institutions have received sanctuary campus status around the country. Undocumented students should give serious consideration to schools designated as sanctuary campuses.

Modeled on the concept of sanctuary cities, sanctuary campuses provide much-needed relief from the tense atmosphere that an undocumented student may experience at other institutions. On a typical college campus in the U.S., undocumented students may feel anxiety about institutions and individuals sharing their immigration status with authorities or being attacked by campus police enforcing immigration law.

Sanctuary campuses address these fears by not allowing ICE officers on campus without warrants, not allowing campus police to enforce immigration law, and not sharing students’ immigration status with authorities. They also offer resources tailored to undocumented students’ unique needs, such as tuition support, medical and health services, and distance learning options for deported students.

Choose Institutions That Serve Specific Populations

Undocumented students should give strong consideration to institutions that have historically served a particular faith group or underserved population. Institutions with experience advocating for particular minority groups often also work to make amenities available to other underserved students.

Hispanic-serving colleges and universities often sympathize the most with issues faced by undocumented immigrants, especially those from Latin America. These institutions usually designate themselves as sanctuary campuses. Undocumented immigrants from Latin America often feel more supported and culturally at-ease at these schools than elsewhere.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and faith-based institutions also often advocate for undocumented students. At the 47 HBCUs in the U.S., undocumented students can expect an inclusive atmosphere and opportunities to access scholarships tailored to their needs. Faith-based institutions sometimes offer tuition support and legal assistance for undocumented students, along with advocacy for causes such as protecting political refugees, though you should be sure to research individual schools before making a choice.

Consider an Online College

Online programs also deserve undocumented students’ consideration because of the convenience they offer. Online degrees cost less than their on-campus counterparts, and attending one means that the undocumented college student doesn’t risk running into immigration enforcement while trying to secure on- or off-campus housing. Prospective students can explore our guide covering the best online colleges of 2020.

However, there are some unique difficulties for undocumented students attending school online. For instance, limited English skills could be exacerbated by the primarily written format of online schools, which presents a barrier to clear communication with faculty and peers. Limited feedback and an impersonal environment can also cause an undocumented student to get lost in the shuffle.

While undocumented students face barriers to accessing higher education, many institutions — especially those that serve minority groups — welcome them with open arms. The most important thing is to first research a college’s stance on undocumented students before sharing any information on your citizenship status.

But don’t allow fear to hold you back from pursuing a degree. If you weigh your options carefully, you can find an affordable, accredited college that will offer you a community as well as an education.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do Undocumented Students Pay for College?

Immigrant students commonly pay for college with scholarships tailored specifically to undocumented, first-generation, low-income, or other high-need students. Undocumented students can pursue scholarships from certain states, private colleges, nonprofits, and other organizations. Unfortunately, undocumented students do not qualify for federal student aid.

Do DACA Recipients Get Free College?

DACA recipients cannot claim any entitlement to free college. Instead, they often find themselves turned away from financial aid and admissions offices for their lack of citizenship. However, DACA recipients do qualify for state funding in some states.

Can You Go To College If You Are an Undocumented Immigrant?

Yes. No federal or state law prevents undocumented immigrants from attending college. Though some colleges require applicants to submit proof of legal citizenship, many others do not. Some schools also admit undocumented students but treat them as foreign students, disqualified from in-state tuition rates and state aid. In some states, undocumented immigrants can pay in-state tuition rates for college if they graduated from in-state public schools and commit to applying for citizenship. However, policies vary by state and institution.

Can You Get Financial Aid If You Are Undocumented?

You can gain access to financial aid as an undocumented immigrant through grants and scholarships from states and private foundations that do not require U.S. citizenship to qualify.

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