Every year, an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high schools in the United States. Only a stunning five to 10 percent of them, however, go on to attend college.
That’s not because it’s impossible for undocumented students to get a college degree. On the contrary, many undocumented students assume that college isn’t an option for them, so they don’t even apply.
Going to college as an undocumented immigrant is legal and achievable. There are certainly some challenges, but with careful planning and persistence, you can make this work.
It’s Legal for Undocumented Students to Attend College
Living as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. can be scary and confusing, especially in 2019. The laws seem to shift every year, and with immigration laws in constant flux, students may not be able to count on gaining legal status in time for college.
Can undocumented immigrants go to college? The answer is yes. There is no federal law that prohibits undocumented students from attending college in the U.S. DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients are specifically protected from deportation by law, but even those who aren’t able to apply for DACA can legally go to college.
You Can Apply Like Any Other Student
The route for undocumented students to college is mostly the same as it is for U.S. citizens. To apply, you’ll need to submit your grades, standardized test scores, a personal essay, letters of recommendation and other required items.
As with U.S. citizens, doing well in high school will make it easier to attend college without breaking the bank. Many top private schools in the U.S. openly welcome and protect undocumented students, so don’t assume that these schools are not an option for you because of your immigration status.
You Need a Financial Plan
The law isn’t an obstacle for college-bound undocumented students, but finances often are. Unfortunately, undocumented students don’t qualify for federal financial aid or most state financial aid. Additionally, many schools consider undocumented students to be out-of-state or international students, so they only qualify for a smaller pool of college financial aid.
Instead, many undocumented students must pay for college out-of-pocket, apply for private loans or apply for private scholarships and grants. You can search for scholarships specifically for undocumented students online.
The good news? There are many schools that offer in-state tuition rates, financial aid, grants and scholarships for undocumented immigrants. These are the best colleges for undocumented students to target their search.
Policies Vary by School and by State
Before you apply to a school, check their policy on undocumented immigrants on their school website or by contacting the admissions office. They can give you specific information on admission requirements, what types of financial aid you’re eligible for and which forms you need to fill out.
Best Colleges for Undocumented Students
At least 18 states offer in-state tuition rates for undocumented students at public colleges, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah and Washington.
Some public schools in other states also opt to provide in-state tuition rates to undocumented students like the University of Hawaii and the University of Michigan. On the other end of the spectrum, Arizona, Georgia and Indiana specifically prohibit in-state tuition rates for undocumented students.
When it comes to financial aid, six states provide state financial aid to undocumented students in college, which makes it that much easier to afford. These include California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas and Washington. In other states, state financial aid is unavailable.
Private schools, on the other hand, set their own individual policies on undocumented applicants. Some schools are quite generous with financial aid, while others don’t offer aid to non-citizens at all. U.C. Berkeley, for example, has a $1 million scholarship fund set aside for undocumented immigrants. A 2016 list of 30 colleges shows they have pledged to meet 100 percent of undocumented students’ demonstrated financial need.
You're Not Alone
You’re not the only one to ever attempt this feat, and you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Chat with your family about your academic goals. Reach out to a trusted counselor or teacher at your high school for more advice on the college application process, and know that it’s illegal for school officials to disclose personal information about students, including their immigration status.
If your high school counselor isn’t particularly helpful or knowledgeable, be persistent. Stay informed on your own, and connect with organizations such as United We Dream and Educators for Fair Consideration for resources and support.
You’ll need supportive folks on your team once you get to school, too. It’s a good idea to focus your search on schools and communities where you’ll feel comfortable and safe. Some schools have resource centers specifically for undocumented students, which are a great source of support.
Your Situation May Change
Laws and policies are always subject to change, which is both a good and a bad thing. Keep up with the news regularly to see whether any changes in policies might affect your college plans.
DACA, for example, allowed thousands of immigrants to remain in the U.S. without risk of deportation for limited periods of time. Under the current administration, however, new applicants can no longer apply for DACA, and its future remains unclear.
Keep an eye on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center for updates.
- NerdWallet: How DACA Students Can Apply to College
- Best Colleges: College Guide for Undocumented Students
- CollegeBoard: 6 Things Undocumented Students Need to Know About College
- National Conference of State Legislatures: Undocumented Student Tuition Overview
- CollegeBoard Professionals: Advising Undocumented Students
Kim Wong-Shing is a writer in New Orleans. She has a Bachelor's degree in Education from Brown University and a Master's degree in Education from Bank Street College. She worked as a teacher for four years before transitioning into full-time writing. Kim has also written for Lifehacker, LittleThings, HelloGiggles, and a variety of other outlets.