College 101 for undocumented students

In a study conducted by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, it’s estimated that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the US will require a college degree or some kind of training past a high school education. For any student, the pressure is on to continue your education after high school. But for undocumented students, the future is especially uncertain after graduation.

It’s a common misconception that being undocumented means, you do not have access to a college-level education in the United States. But in reality, there are no federal or state laws that prohibit you from attending US colleges, either public or private. Attending college in the United States is not beyond reach. You can make it happen by being aware of the options and resources available to help you successfully apply for and fund your college education.

Making college a reality

Attending a US college or university can open up many doors for your future. As an undocumented student, it’s important to be aware of the potential obstacles that you might face, from admission, financial aid, and tuition costs. Picking the right school can make all the difference in the pursuit of your dreams.

When considering a US college or university as an undocumented student the location and cost should be regarded with serious consideration. Some states have various laws surrounding undocumented students that may prohibit you from applying to certain schools or require you to pay higher tuition costs than in-state students. It may be helpful to contact your school of choice to understand their admission policies. Also reach out to the school’s multicultural office, as they may be useful for providing you with more resources and information.

You can help to offset some of your future college tuition costs while still in high school by earning college credits through Advanced Placement (AP) classes. The advantage is that you will be able to earn some college general requirement credits while still attending high school, avoiding the college tuition cost of those classes. This can help you graduate college faster and pay less tuition over time.

Laws surrounding undocumented students

US law guarantees a public education for students in grades K-12 regardless of their citizenship because legally school professionals are not allowed to inquire about a student’s citizenship status. However, for college-bound students, it gets a little tricky. There are no federal or state laws that require students to provide citizenship to attend a US college or university. But each college or university may have their own policy for admitting undocumented students.

Most state governments understand that to keep their economy competitive, they must attract educated young people. But in three states- Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia, undocumented students are prohibited from applying to public universities. In other states, undocumented students are not eligible for financial assistance and are treated as foreign students, resulting in a higher out-of-state tuition cost, even if those students have been longtime residents of the state. However, sixteen states that allow undocumented students to receive in-state benefits and some also offer financial assistance.

Financial Aid

It’s estimated that about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from US high schools every year. But of that number, only 5-10% enroll in college. A significant factor could be the lack of financial aid available to these students. Undocumented students are not legally permitted to receive any federally-funded student financial aid, grants, scholarships or work-study opportunities. However, they are still eligible for state and private financial assistance, although this varies by state.

Rhode Island, Hawaii, Maine, Oklahoma, and Michigan have made efforts to make college more affordable to undocumented students with in-state tuition policies. Other states also offer financial assistance and the use of private sources for financial aid funding. An example of this is the Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) program. This program provides funding for colleges and universities where 25% or more of their full-time students are Hispanic.

Some colleges and universities will require every student to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal aid and do not have the social security number required to submit the form. If you are concerned about sending the FAFSA form online to the federal government, check with the school to see if you are able to print and submit the completed form directly to them. By law, under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), school officials are not allowed to report your citizen status to the USCIS.


Scholarships can provide you with another source of financial aid for tuition and help cover meals, housing, and books. There are some private and state-sponsored scholarships available for undocumented students that don’t require US citizenship. Start looking in your junior and senior year of high school for applicable scholarships before attending college. This will help to give you a head start in understanding your options and making sure you fulfill all of the necessary application requirements.

Scholarship resources for undocumented students can be found on:

DACA and The DREAM Act

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act are policies that offer some protection and hope for undocumented students, even if temporary. Unfortunately, the DACA program has been rescinded, and the DREAM Act has failed to pass into law. Regardless of the current status, it is still important to understand what is at stake and how you can help.


In 2012, DACA was created to prevent deportation for qualified undocumented students for two years. The program does not lead to citizenship but provides students with temporary legal status. The goal of DACA is to give students access to education and work opportunities without the fear of deportation.

Currently, USCIS is not accepting applications for new DACA requests, but under federal law, they are still required to accept renewals. DACA was not intended to be a permanent solution but rather a placeholder until the DREAM act, or something similar could provide a more thorough resolution for young people who’ve known no other home other than the United States.  


The DREAM Act, if passed into law, would have provided undocumented students with a six-year process to obtain permanent legal status. The act also would repeal Section 505 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) which discourages states from offering in-state tuition or other benefits to undocumented students.

The proposed six-year process would be available to undocumented students who meet these qualifications:

  • Have lived in the US at least five years before the legislation is signed into law or have been a US resident from age 15 or younger
  • Graduated from a US high school
  • Community college graduate or completed at least two years towards a four-year degree
  • Or served at least two years in the US military

How you can help

Legislation that helps to protect undocumented students can reduce the number of immigrant households living in poverty and increase wages and labor force participation for all Americans.

Here are some ways that you can help to make an impact in the future of thousands of undocumented students:

  • Learn as much as you can about DACA and the variations of the DREAM Act. Share the information with your friends and family. You can help stop the spread of misinformation regarding the scope of these policies
  • If it is safe for you to do so, share your story. Define American is a powerful storytelling tool that asks the question, “What makes a person a part of this country?” Your story can help minimize the misconception of what it means to be undocumented
  • Contact elected officials and urge them to pass a resolution to protect the undocumented students and young people who regard the US as their home
  • Volunteer or donate to immigrant organizations, attend rallies and help to spread the word

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