A Guide to College for Undocumented Students

Undocumented students attending college must navigate a continually evolving landscape. Learn about legal protections, financial help, and selecting a school that will give you the support you need while undocumented.

Disclosing Your Immigration Status

Many students worry about disclosing their undocumented status when talking to school counselors. Legally, public schools in the US may not disclose immigration status or several other pieces of privileged information without express written permission of a parent, under a law known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. FERPA covers information which is valuable to schools, but could potentially be used in harmful ways, such as contact information, disciplinary history, and schedules. This law allows students to trust schools with the data that they need to operate without feeling like they're putting themselves at risk. It is also worth noting that immigration enforcement agencies are not allowed to operate on the grounds of public schools, and public schools are only required to comply with their requests when served a judicial subpoena.

With that said, it is very important to be honest about your immigration status with school advisers when it comes to applying so they have the context they need to serve you best. Undocumented students without social security numbers, for example, cannot receive federal student aid, but they may be able to receive aid from states, depending on where they currently reside. Many universities also have specially designed programs to support undocumented students, which can make your time in college much less stressful. There are also a small number of states, namely South Carolina and Alabama, where undocumented students are barred from attending public universities at all, so advisers may need to know your status to prevent accidental exposure by applying to such a state's universities.


DACA Protection

Beginning June 15, 2012, the Obama Administration announced a policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. DACA was intended to cover children who were brought into the US by their parents, but had lived their entire lives in America and often considered themselves Americans. Many of these children would have no way of knowing they were undocumented until the time came to apply for college or a driver's license. DACA provides these people, known as Dreamers, with a pathway to citizenship and access to higher education.

To qualify for DACA, a student must:
    • Have been under 31 years of age on June 15, 2012
    • Have arrived in the US prior to their 16th birthday
    • Have resided continuously in the US for five years (June 15, 2007)
    • Have been present in the US on June 15, 2012
    • Not have lawful status
    • Have graduated from high school, earned a GED, or been honorably discharged from the Armed Forces
    • Have not been convicted of felonies or significant misdemeanors. Up to 3 minor misdemeanors may be excused, so long as the individual represents no threat.

    Students who can demonstrate all of these qualifications may apply for DACA status, which is valid for two years and renewable.

    Recent Developments

    On September 5, 2017, the Trump Administration announced its intention to 'phase out' the DACA program, which was quickly challenged in the courts. On June 18, 2020, the Supreme Court upheld DACA, protecting thousands of DREAMERS from deportation. For the time being, the program is operating as it has been, while still venerable. With this in mind, we recommend reviewing the legal resources at the end of this guide to confirm your eligibility and options moving forward.


Choosing the Right School

There are a number of things which students must consider when applying to colleges, and that's especially true for undocumented students. As mentioned above, public universities in South Carolina and Alabama are barred from accepting undocumented students, and several other states preclude them from receiving the more affordable in-state tuition rates. These are some of the most important things to take into account when deciding on schools, but there are a number of other factors to consider, such as diversity, proximity to support systems such as family, support programs offered by universities, and more, which are explained in greater detail below.

School Support Programs For Undocumented Students

As part of a concerted effort to assist undocumented students and encourage them to pursue higher education, many universities and even entire university systems offer support programs designed to aid undocumented students. The University of California system, for example, provides free immigration legal assistance to all students and their immediately family, ensuring that they have the expertise to navigate this complicated area of law available to them. Universities may also offer in-house scholarships reserved for undocumented students, which can be either need-based or merit-based. The University of Colorado at Denver is one such school, offering a Student Relief Fund for undocumented students, provided they can demonstrate their need and maintain academic performance. This kind of assistance can be extraordinarily helpful for undocumented students, as they are more likely to be working full-time while also taking classes, leaving little time to study or do homework, which can potentially put their performance at risk. Other forms of assistance can come from officially recognized student organizations which relate to your ancestry or immigration, such as emotional support and camaraderie.

Minority-Serving Institutions

Minority-serving institutions (MSI) are colleges or universities which meet federal criteria for enrollment of a percentage of a specific demographic population. Because being a Minority-Serving Institution is a federal designation, there is no such category which caters towards undocumented students in general. However, many HSIs and other Minority-Serving Institutions are familiar with the struggles faced by undocumented students at the post-secondary level, and may have unique insight into assisting you through college if you choose to apply.

Hispanic-Serving Institutions
Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions

Universities with these designations are more likely to have offices that support diversity, clubs aimed at assisting DACA recipients, and other forms of assistance that help undocumented students. The University of California Irvine, for example, is classified as both an AANAPISI and HSI, and features a special office known as the UCI Dream Center, which is dedicated to aiding undocumented students specifically. The Dream Center offers scholarships, academic help, support groups, special art groups, and other forms of assistance to ensure that undocumented students reach graduation. While not all MSIs will have such extensive support, many will offer at least a few comparable services.

Online Degrees

Another option which may be worth considering for undocumented students is pursuing online degrees. Online degree programs allow students to learn from their homes, and on schedules that can fit the lives of working adults, which is often the case for undocumented students. Taking courses online may also ease anxieties relating to a student's undocumented status; while the university or college where the student is enrolled will still need much of the same contact information and other sensitive details, there will be less people that an online student must interact with. Online degree programs also tend to be much less expensive when it comes to tuition, and without the need for dorm residencies and meal plans, the overall cost of attendance is much lower as well. For those with limited abilities speaking English, online courses can sometimes be easier, allowing the student to communicate and learn primarily through text, reading as quickly or as slowly as he or she might desire. Additionally, so long as your online degree program is from an accredited school, it is every bit as valid as a degree from a brick and mortar campus.

College Application Checklist

Students applying to colleges have a number of things to consider, and a large amount of information they'll need to have on hand. While guides on the basics of applying are quite easy to find, guides which tailor to the needs of undocumented students are much rarer by comparison. As such, this checklist will cover a number of the things that you might need, or which will increase your odds of acceptance.

  • Research. Begin looking at colleges and universities which will be a good fit for you. Factors to consider might be proximity to home and support systems, the majors and programs offered, and funding assistance available. Having a list of colleges to consider will help reduce the total number of applications you need to file, as well as give you a better idea of the other requirements you may need to meet, such as test scores.

  • Prepare to write admissions essays. Admissions essays are one way which universities use to get to know applicants better and ensure that they will be a good fit. For undocumented students, difficulties are often a regular part of life, and so provided that you are comfortable discussing them, these experiences can make for powerful and convincing essays. Difficulties which make good subject matter for essays include work experience while attending high school, taking on familial responsibilities such as watching younger siblings, or occasions where you have experienced discrimination. What college admissions offices are typically looking for is proof that you can persevere and maintain academic success.Try to highlight how you were able to balance these responsibilities and hardships without allowing your schoolwork to fall behind.

  • Apply for scholarships One of the key points for many scholarships is the ability to demonstrate financial need, so as to ensure that the funds are going to those who will benefit from it most. Federal tax returns are the most commonly requested documents, but undocumented students may have difficulty obtaining these. If you are no longer dependent on your parents, then it is possible to use your own tax returns. Some scholarships and other financial aid applications, particularly those aimed at undocumented students or low-income populations, may accept alternative forms of documentation to demonstrate need, such as bank statements. The most flexible will simply ask for household income, the number of family members supported by this income, and the number of students who may be attending college that school year. It may also be possible to ask the award giving organization for exceptions or alternative documentation to demonstrate need, if none of the above is possible.

  • Request recommendation letters. Not all schools or programs require letters of recommendation, but these letters are one of the more challenging items for undocumented students to acquire, as many of the people they may wish to use as references have limited English skills which makes a formal letter tough to write. Most school admissions offices will accept letters written in languages other than English, provided it is accompanied by a translation. Schools will typically request no more than three letters, although they may want specific topics covered, or to have the letter tailored towards their program in particular. It is usually best to review these requirements prior to asking for letters of recommendation so as not to inconvenience your reference.

A Note For ESL Students Applying for College

Applicants to American universities are expected to meet a certain level of English literacy in order to attend their classes and complete their work on time. While this is typically only necessary for international students, undocumented students may also need to demonstrate proficiency. Many universities require students who do not speak English as their first language to take standardized tests assessing their English abilities. These tests commonly consist of four sections: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

The most common of these is the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL. TOEFL is well trusted by admissions departments and specially calibrated to test English as it is used in everyday speech, rather than relying on obscure grammatical rules.

Another language testing exam that's commonly accepted is the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS. The IELTS is more focused on international students, and may not be as useful for undocumented students who learned English as a second language. Still, there are over 50 IELTS testing centers within the US, should you feel this is a better test for you.

Certain colleges and universities may have other means of testing English proficiency. For example, the University of California at Los Angeles requires students who scored below a 100 on TOEFL to take an English placement test known as the ESLPE. These kinds of placement exams are mostly used by writing-heavy programs, where a particularly in-depth knowledge of the language may be required. For undergraduates, SAT and ACT scores are sometimes an option, with the required score on the reading section typically being between 410 and 510 on the SAT, or 20 or higher on the ACT.


State Aid

Unfortunately, undocumented students are at a disadvantage when it comes to paying for college, since they are not eligible to receive federal student aid. This can make funding higher education an intimidating prospect, as a large number of college students rely on this federal student aid to pay tuition. There are, however, some avenues for funding which undocumented students may be able to pursue, and some states which are attempting to support the efforts of undocumented students to obtain higher education. The College Board website has an excellent FAQ which can answer questions in a simple and easy to understand manner.

In 17 states, there are provisions in state law which allow undocumented students to receive lower in-state tuition rates at public universities, state-level financial aid, or a combination of both.

States that provide in-state tuition rates
    • Arkansas
    • Connecticut
    • Florida
    • Illinois
    • Kansas
    • Maryland
    • Nebraska
    • New Jersey
    • New York
    • Utah
States that offer state-level financial aid and in-state tuition rates
    • California
    • Colorado
    • Minnesota
    • New Mexico
    • Oregon
    • Texas
    • Washington

Two other states, Oklahoma and Rhode Island, have a Board of Regents which may grant in-state tuition rates for certain students. Additionally, for those students covered under DACA, Virginia offers in-state tuition rates as well.

FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a standard form for filing for need-based financial aid; while most of the aid available through the FAFSA itself will not be available to undocumented students, the application is also commonly used by colleges and private scholarship providers as a means of proving financial need. The most important thing required by the FAFSA which undocumented students are unlikely to have is a social security number. However, certain students covered under DACA may be able to obtain social security numbers, in which case they can file the application like other students.

While federal aid will remain unavailable, a completed FAFSA can help with obtaining state support, if available, as well as college and private scholarship opportunities. To fill out the FAFSA, it will be necessary to provide your real, permanent legal state of residence, as well as family income information. When the form requests social security numbers for an undocumented student's parents, the student may fill out the form with 000-00-0000; without a social security number, however, parents will be unable to sign the form electronically, requiring it to be printed, signed manually, and sent through the mail instead. Tax documents are the ideal source of income information, but if a student's family made less than the required amount to file, then the information may be filled out manually. If the undocumented student is financially independent, then parental information is not necessary.

Alternative Credit Options

If federal aid is unavailable to you, it is best to try to acquire as many college credits as you can before enrolling. Many high schools within the US offer means of obtaining these credits for free, or at severely reduced cost, allowing students to fulfill both high school and college requirements at the same time. Advanced Placement (AP) courses are classes which are designed to accomplish this in a variety of subjects, and are commonly offered across the US. Taking AP courses can also help when applying for colleges, as it is often seen as a sign of ambition and a desire to learn. To receive college credit for an AP course, it is necessary to pass the standardized AP exam for that course, which is administered at the end of each semester. AP courses can benefit you by either providing you with 'advanced placement,' essentially allowing students to skip corresponding introductory courses, or credit, wherein the AP course counts towards the credit hours needed to graduate, or both. AP exams are scored on a 1 to 5 scale, with a score of at least 3 needed to be considered for credit or advanced placement. While it does typically cost money to take an AP exam, the cost is significantly lower than that of credit hours at a university.

Some high schools also have agreements with nearby universities and community colleges to allow students to take college-level courses as part of their high school education, which is usually referred to as Dual Enrollment. The goal of dual enrollment is to minimize redundancy of courses between high school and college, as well as allow students to acquire credits prior to graduating high school, which can reduce the overall cost of college. They also have the added benefit of allowing students to acclimate to college courses and the expectations of them, without having substantial amounts of tuition money on the line.

Yet another option is the College Level Examination Program tests, or CLEP. A CLEP test is a multiple choice, computer-based exam which can be used to test out of college requirements and obtain credit for them based on what you already know. There are 34 different CLEP tests, covering a number of topics. These are often general education courses which are expected of all students, and so the knowledge required is very consistent across universities. One key advantage of CLEP tests is that they are available to everyone, not just high school students, and thus may be one of the only options for obtaining college credit for working adults. Not all universities accept CLEP scores for placing out of general education, and the necessary scores can vary, so check with the colleges you've been accepted to before taking them.

Scholarships for Undocumented Students

There are also a number of scholarships, grants, and other funding opportunities which you may be eligible for, depending on factors like grades, extracurricular activities, or even nationality of your parents. The scholarships listed below are accessible to undocumented students, with some even designed for them specifically since many other scholarships may exclude them.

The Cesar Chavez Educational Fund
The Que Llueva Café scholarship
The Golden Door Scholarship
Los Hermanos de Stanford Scholarship
The Anhelo Project Dream Scholarship
The Dream.US Scholarships

Campus Life

Many organizations have sprouted to help provide undocumented students with support as they embark on the quest to earn a degree. Student organizations can offer a sense of belonging, and connect students with similar experiences, reminding them that they are not alone in this struggle. Below are just a few of the student organizations which may be able to help you once you begin taking classes.

DREAMer Clubs
UndocuAlly Training Programs
Hispanic/Latino Student Alliance
Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán


Legal Resources for Undocumented Students

The legal situation surrounding undocumented students can be extremely complex, and constantly changes as the tides of politics shift back and forth. Students who need legal assistance and advice regarding their immigration status, or a number of other related issues, may want to consider reaching out to the following organizations for assistance.

National Immigrant Justice Center
The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund
East Bay Community Law Center