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College Guide for Undocumented Students

Taylor Nichols

Written By: Taylor Nichols

Published: 7/20/2022

Students without legal citizenship or residency face many barriers to higher education. Whether it's accessing financial aid or paying higher tuition fees, the difficulties that come with pursuing a college degree can seem overwhelming.

However, there are some important resources and support systems available for undocumented students to help them overcome these challenges, earn a degree, and succeed.

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Undocumented Students and Higher Education

Undocumented students are people who live and go to school in the U.S. without legal documentation or citizenship. Many young undocumented people were brought to the U.S. as children, grew up in the country, and often don't learn about their citizenship status until they hit significant milestones like applying for college. 

More than 450,000 college students are undocumented, or roughly 2% of all college students in the U.S. About 216,000 of those college students have DACA or are eligible for the program, according to a report from the President's Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

Going to college as an undocumented student comes with unique challenges — choosing where to go to school, applying, and paying for your degree can all be more difficult without U.S. citizenship. This guide will help you navigate the process and answer questions about how to go to college as an undocumented student.

Key facts about undocumented college students in the U.S.

  • The majority of undocumented college students are in five states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois
  • 82% of undocumented students attend public colleges and universities
  • 1 in 10 undocumented students are in graduate school
pie chart showing that latin-x students make up 46% of undocumented college students
Source: President's Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration

Policies Protecting Undocumented Students

The information in this guide is meant to offer general guidelines and should not be taken as legal advice. It's always best to consult an attorney regarding your personal circumstances.

What is DACA and How Does it Affect Students?

DACA is an Obama-era program that shields people brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. Since DACA was introduced in 2012, more than 825,000 young people have been able to work, live, and go to school. Many of these DACA recipients have gone to college and become nurses, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or business owners.

DACA is especially important for college students. Undocumented students can go to college, even if they don't have DACA. But it's often more difficult and expensive.

DACA makes it easier to go to school and qualify for financial aid to help cover tuition. Some financial aid pools are available only to DACA students, and some schools and states offer DACA students in-state tuition, but not all undocumented students. Because DACA students are able to legally work, they can find jobs to help pay for college and enter the workforce after earning their degree.

While the DACA program protects undocumented students brought to the U.S. as children from deportation, it does not offer a pathway to citizenship. The program in its current state also requires recipients to have come to the U.S. before 2007, which means the majority of graduating high school seniors are now too young to qualify.

What is the Current Status of DACA?
(Updated July 10, 2022)

Currently, DACA is still in effect and those who have DACA are still shielded from deportation. However, the federal government is appealing a July 2021 ruling in Texas that deemed the DACA program unlawful. Oral arguments for that case began on July 6, 2022.

The federal government is still currently accepting applications from those who have never had DACA or whose status expired more than a year ago. However, it is not processing or granting these applications, meaning those who have not had DACA for more than one year will not be approved pending the appeal of the Texas case. Those who currently have DACA or those whose status expired less than a year ago can still file for renewal.

Pie chart showing that out of 454,000 undocumented students, 216,000 are DACA eligible
Source: President's Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration

What is the DREAM Act?

The Dream Act is a piece of legislation initially introduced in 2001 that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people brought to the United States as children. There have been many versions of the Dream Act introduced in Congress since the initial legislation in 2001, none of which have been passed into law despite widespread bipartisan support from American adults.

How Does the State I Live in Impact Dreamer Laws?

Undocumented young people, sometimes called Dreamers, have different levels of accessibility to higher education depending on where they live. Some states have passed their own version of the Dream Act or additional pieces of legislation that provide benefits for those who are undocumented.

At least 22 states have laws that make higher education more affordable for undocumented college students. States where undocumented immigrants qualify for in-state tuition and financial aid offer some of the best options for higher education for undocumented students. However, students should check eligibility requirements to make sure they qualify.

States with Laws Increasing Higher Education Access for Undocumented Students

Both In-State Tuition & State Financial Aid California, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C.
In-State Tuition Only Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Utah

Most of these laws require students to have lived in the state for a specific amount of time, attended school, and/or graduated high school in the state to qualify.

The National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Immigration Law Center both provide state-by-state information related to tuition benefits for undocumented students pursuing higher education.

View our College Guide for Latinx Students to learn more.

How to Pay for College as an Undocumented Student

Most students rely on financial aid to help them pay for college in the form of grants, loans, and scholarships. For undocumented students, however, the process is much more complicated due to their citizenship status. 

The types of aid available to them vary depending on where they live, where they plan to go to school, whether or not they have DACA, and other factors. This guide will help answer some of the most common questions about how to pay for college as an undocumented student.

Financial Aid for Undocumented Students

Undocumented college students cannot receive federal financial aid, even if they have DACA. This creates a significant barrier to higher education – without access to federal grants, work-study funding, and federal student loans, paying for college is much more difficult.

While federal financial aid is not an option for undocumented students, there are many opportunities to help cover tuition and education costs, including scholarships, grants, and private student loans.

Can DACA students fill out the FAFSA?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA, is a form that college students typically fill out to qualify for financial aid from federal and state governments and their school.

Because the FAFSA requires a Social Security Number (SSN), many undocumented students will not be able to fill out the application for aid. 

Students who have DACA can apply for an SSN and use that to fill out the FAFSA, even though they won't qualify for federal aid. This will allow the government to give you a Student Aid Report (SAR), which colleges can use to award you state or institutional aid. 

If you have concerns about submitting personal information through the FAFSA, talk to a high school counselor or the financial aid office at the school you want to attend to see what the best options are for you based on your personal circumstances. You do not have to disclose your immigration status.

Can undocumented students receive state financial aid?

This depends on the state. Many states have laws that allow undocumented college students to access state financial aid, scholarships, and/or in-state tuition. Some limit these benefits to certain universities or only allow DACA recipients to access funding. The Presidents' Alliance provides detailed information on state laws in their Higher Ed Guide to Tuition, Financial Aid, & Other Funding Opportunities for Undocumented Students.

States that provide financial aid for undocumented students often have their own applications similar to the FAFSA. Undocumented and DACA students in California, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington are eligible to receive state financial aid and can find application information by clicking on the name of their state above. 

How do I apply for financial aid?

The type of aid and application process available to undocumented students varies from state to state and may even be different depending on your school. Undocumented students should contact their financial aid office to find out what aid is available and how to apply.

For students who live in a state that has its own financial aid application, your school may recommend you fill that out to apply for aid. Some schools may also have undocumented students submit a CSS Profile, which is an online application for nonfederal student financial aid through the College Board, rather than submitting the FAFSA. Those who do not have an SSN may need to submit a paper copy of the FAFSA.

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Can I tell my school's financial advisor about my immigration status?

Financial aid and admissions officers are there to help you navigate the college admissions and enrollment process. Generally speaking, it is safe to discuss your circumstances with them if you feel comfortable and safe doing so. However, students should never feel obligated to disclose any information about their undocumented status to anyone

The U.S. Department of Education states that school officials should not ask a student about their citizenship status. Financial aid counselors are not required to report undocumented students to ICE or USCIS and are actually legally not permitted to do so in most cases.

Colleges and universities legally cannot share most student information, including immigration status, with third parties under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). That includes ICE and any other federal agency. Schools can only disclose information without written consent if they are court-ordered to do so or if the information is subpoenaed. 

According to the Stanford Law School Policy Lab, ICE often issues administrative "warrants" when seeking information, which are not court-ordered, and student information would be protected under FERPA in that case. Removal warrants or deportation orders from ICE are also not court-ordered, and student information would remain protected under FERPA in that case as well.

The only other exception to this rule is if ICE or the Department of Homeland Security is seeking to monitor students with F, J, or M student visas. If you are a student with an F, J, or M nonimmigrant visa, schools are required to share your information if it's requested by ICE.

If you have DACA, it is safe to report your undocumented status to your school, as you are lawfully permitted to reside, work, and pursue higher education in the country. Many students are understandably hesitant to share their immigration status with school officials even when they know how FERPA laws protect their confidential information. 

Some schools are very clearly supportive of undocumented students and show this by establishing sanctuary campus policies or pledging to protect and support undocumented students. Checking your school's website or asking school officials about policies related to undocumented students can help you gauge how supportive your school will be in helping you navigate college as an undocumented student and can help you feel safer in getting the help you need.

What are some alternatives to student loans?

Because undocumented students have limited access to financial aid, they often have to rely on private student loans or scholarships to pay for college. As a general rule, students should seek gift aid like grants and scholarships before relying on student loans to reduce the cost of their education and minimize debt. 

Checking to see if you qualify for state funding is the first step in covering education costs. Many undocumented students also rely on scholarships and grants to fund their education. There are a variety of funding programs geared specifically towards students who are undocumented, students of color, first-generation students, and many other demographics. 

Immigrant Rising provides an annual list of scholarships and fellowships for undocumented students. TheDream.US is another useful resource for undocumented students looking for scholarships and partners with different colleges to better support Dreamers.

Individual colleges and universities also often provide additional resources and funding. Check with the colleges you want to attend to see what options are available for you.

Once students have used all available scholarships, grants, and other gift aid, they can use private student loans to finance the rest of their education. While undocumented individuals can still take out private loans, their loan providers may require them to have a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen. Fixed-rate private student loans are generally a better option than variable-rate loans, whose interest rates can fluctuate unpredictably.

Can undocumented students work?

Undocumented students are only able to work while they're in school if they have a work permit through DACA or another program. A DACA work permit allows undocumented students to hold any job they qualify for, just as a U.S. citizen would be able to. DACA students can find jobs on campus and work for their school, or they can work off-campus in their local area.

Online Colleges for Undocumented Students

What Are the Benefits of an Online Degree for Undocumented Students?

It’s no secret that earning a degree can lead to more job opportunities and greater earning potential, but higher education benefits people in so many other ways. Students have the opportunity to discover what they’re passionate about in college, and this can lead to a fulfilling and meaningful career.

More money and better jobs.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows bachelor's people with bachelor's degrees are more likely to be employed, earn about $2,000 more per month, and are more likely to have healthcare and other benefits through work.

Bar chart showing those with a bachelors degree earn $25,152 more than those with a high school diploma
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, based on median weekly earnings in 2020

Affordable education options.

The growing number of online schools accepting and encouraging undocumented students to apply has greatly expanded access to higher education. Undocumented students who live in Georgia or Arizona, for example, don't qualify for in-state tuition at public universities, limiting their access to affordable options. The rise of online programs means students now have access to schools across the country, increasing their ability to find more affordable options without having to leave their homes or families.

Feeling safe at school.

Undocumented students also face the possibility of discrimination in unwelcoming campus communities and the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents on campus. As a general rule, ICE agents do not carry out arrests, interviews, or searches on college campuses. But, even their presence at recruitment events can cause stress and anxiety for undocumented students.

Saving money.

Prospective students can save money by enrolling online as some schools provide the same tuition rate to all online students, regardless of location. In addition to lower tuition rates, online students can save money by living at home, which eliminates campus housing fees and the cost of moving to a new city to attend school.

Go to school where you want, when you want.

The ability to save money, complete coursework on a flexible schedule, and stay close to home are benefits that all online students can appreciate. But for undocumented students trying to obtain an education while navigating immigration policies that are constantly changing, the option to stay close to family and other support systems is a huge benefit. It also means students can fit school in around their work schedule or other responsibilities.

How Do I Choose an Online School That's Right for Me?

As schools and universities expand their online options, the resources and services available for online students continue to grow. Here are a few key things to consider when choosing a school.

Programs available: Some schools offer many online degrees, while others are limited to just a few programs. We've compiled a list of accredited online schools by program to help students find the best fit.
Acceptance policy: Schools set their own policies on whether or not they accept undocumented students. You may need to contact schools for information on application requirements and acceptance policies.
Student resources and support: Some things to look for include bilingual advisors, counseling or mental health resources, technical resources, legal services, sanctuary campuses that adopt policies to protect undocumented students, and student groups and clubs dedicated to first-generation, LatinX, undocumented students, and students of color.
In-state tuition: Some schools offer in-state tuition for all online students, regardless of where they live. This provides a lower-cost option for those who may not have access to in-state tuition in their home state due to their citizenship status.
Campus and school culture: It is important to have peers, mentors, and advisors that understand and represent your experience. Universities that have designated support systems for minority students or clear policies welcoming undocumented students can be a good indicator of the campus culture. While it is important to have a community that you can relate to, students should never feel like they have to disclose their immigration status to anyone.
Undocumented students as international students: Some schools accept undocumented students as international students, which means tuition rates will typically be much more expensive. These schools may require you to pass an English language proficiency test if you speak English as a second language. This is usually not required for students who graduated from a school that primarily speaks and teaches in English.

Support and Resources for Undocumented Students and Immigrant Students

Navigating college can be difficult for any student, but those who are undocumented experience a unique set of challenges in higher education and in their personal lives due to their citizenship status. The following organizations provide resources for undocumented people experiencing legal challenges, going to college, and looking for financial aid and scholarships available to undocumented students.

Legal Resources

The ACLU has been at the forefront of legal defense regarding civil rights for more than 100 years and is a key advocate in issues such as immigrants' rights and detention. Undocumented students can find information on their rights as immigrants in English and Spanish. The ACLU also provides legal resources for Dreamers, rights within the 100-mile border zone, enforcement at the airport, and information on education for immigrants.

The National Immigration Law Center (NILC) is an organization that advocates for immigrant rights with a focus on low-income families. NILC provides a wealth of information including legal resources, toolkits on education access, financial aid and scholarship pages, COVID-19 resources, and guides for educators on sanctuary schools and safe zones.

Informed Immigrant was created after the 2016 presidential election as a resource hub for immigrant families and communities. The organization offers many resources including information on renewing DACA, immigrant rights guides, COVID-19 resources, and a search tool to find legal help in your local area.

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center offers technical assistance, educational resources, leadership development, FAQs, and other tools that can aid in advocacy for immigrants and allies. Students can find information on DACA, immigration enforcement and deportation, and other topics as well as finding legal help in their area on this site.

The AILA provides a search tool to help immigrants find the right type of immigration lawyer in their area.

Students can use the immigration legal intake service, connect with support groups, find mental health support, get information about scholarships, visas, and applying for DACA here, as well as many other resources.

This group offers free legal services for immigrants and their families.

College Resources

This resource hub offers information on upcoming events related to immigration, tips on navigating the education system, scholarship opportunities, FAQs, policy updates, information for high school, college, and graduate students, and shares stories from undocumented students on their experiences in education.

This guide created by students from the Santa Clara University School of Law provides comprehensive information on applying and enrolling in graduate school as an undocumented student. It also includes information on which states are the most friendly for undocumented students, how FERPA protects your personal information, when and how to disclose immigration status, funding education, and other useful knowledge and tools for students at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

The Boston Teachers Union created a highly useful resource page for undocumented students applying to colleges. It includes some information specific to Boston students but has lots of great FAQs that can be useful for all undocumented students on topics such as financial aid, the FAFSA, applying for scholarships, finding a campus friendly to undocumented students, and navigating the college application process.

The College Board compiled a list of resources for undocumented students pursuing higher education broken down by state, including information on state laws, financial aid and scholarship options, student organizations, college admissions, and other support organizations.

United We Dream has an FAQ guide for DACA students filling out the FAFSA. The guide answers some specific questions about how to fill out the FAFSA as an undocumented student or a student whose parent is not a U.S. citizen. It's important to note that the guide has not been updated since 2014, and more states provide financial aid to undocumented students now.

Aside from legal resources, Informed Immigrant also publishes comprehensive guides with tons of resources for undocumented students pursuing higher education.

This FAQ resource page provides more information on filling out the FAFSA as a DACA student.

Scholarship Resources

The Golden Door Scholars program provides scholarships for undocumented students, including those who do not have DACA or TPS, who are not eligible for in-state tuition or federal funding. This scholarship program is open to undocumented students who are pursuing a bachelor's degree, including current high school students, recent graduates, transfer students, and current undergraduate students.

This foundation offers two scholarship programs open to undocumented students. The College Scholarship Program provides up to $40,000 per year to students with financial need. The Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship funds up to $40,000 per year for students transferring to a four-year university from a community college to earn their bachelor's degree.

TheDream.US provides two scholarship programs for undocumented students who have DACA or TPS. The National Scholarship is available for high school and community college graduates who qualify for in-state tuition at one of the organization's partner colleges. The Opportunity Scholarship is available to undocumented students who live in states that don't offer in-state tuition to undocumented students or allow them to enroll in state colleges.

The Esperanza Education Fund provides up to $20,000 scholarships for undocumented students who are graduating seniors or recently earned their GED in the District of Columbia, Maryland, or Virginia.

This scholarship is open to graduating seniors, undergraduate students, community college students transferring to a four-year university, and graduate students. Applicants must be of Hispanic heritage and must be enrolled in the DACA program.

Immigrants Rising provides an annual list of scholarships and fellowships for undocumented students at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

MALDEF offers an annual scholarship for undocumented students in law school, as well as a resource page of other scholarships available to undocumented students.

This volunteer-run resource page breaks down scholarships available to undocumented students by month so applicants can easily find which scholarships they can apply to based on their monthly deadlines.

Additional Support for Undocumented Students

From working to support themselves and their family to handling legal issues, undocumented students face many unique challenges. Because of the specific barriers undocumented students face, there are some critical resources they should keep in mind when choosing an online school. It can be harder to access services when you are not on a physical campus, and seeking out a school with comprehensive remote services will make accessing them much easier.

  • Mental health and counseling services are among the most important resources offered by colleges and universities. Look for a school that offers virtual sessions.
  • Bilingual advisors are helpful for students who speak English as a second language. This is not as commonly offered but may be available upon request.
  • Schools that serve larger populations of undocumented and minority students may have designated advisors for DREAMers.
  • Career services are a great resource for students that are often underutilized. These are especially important at online schools, as many students who pursue an online degree are working adults with specific career goals.
  • Access to health centers is also a key benefit of attending college or university, and it can be difficult to find online schools that offer comparable services. Check for schools that offer health insurance or other cost-effective options for online students.
  • Student groups for undocumented students, LatinX students, first-generation students, immigrant students, and students of color can be a great way to build community. Take a look at the online student groups and clubs available on school websites.
  • Some schools offer free or discounted legal services for students or can connect them with similar resources in their communities.
  • Those who need extra academic support can take advantage of tutoring services, including online math and writing centers, available at most schools.

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