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.
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 DevelopmentsOn 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 (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.
A Hispanic-Serving Institution, or HSI, is a legal term which is defined as an accredited institution of higher education which 'has an enrollment of undergraduate full-time equivalent students that is at least 25 percent Hispanic students at the end of the award year immediately preceding the date of the application' which grants this status. Another key element of being recognized as an HSI is that at least 50 percent of the students at the school are receiving need-based assistance, and a significant percentage receiving Federal Pell Grants. As of the 2018-2019 school year, there are around 539 Department of Education-recognized HSIs. Lists of HSIs and other heavily Hispanic institutions are maintained by a variety of organizations. The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, or HACU, is an organization which was key to encouraging congress to establish the HSI program, and works in other Latin American and Spanish-speaking countries as well as the US and Puerto Rico. The HACU has 298 members recognized as HSIs within the US. Excelencia in Education is an organization founded in 2004, which also maintains a list of HSIs and promotes education policies which assist Latino students. Their list is easily searchable, and contains all 539 recognized HSIs, as well as 'emerging HSIs', which have a Hispanic student ratio of 15-24.9 percent.
Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions
Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISI) are universities which have at least 10 percent of undergraduate students identifying as belonging to Asian or Pacific Islander ethnic groups. While there are fewer AANAPISIs (38 at present) than HSIs, universities can be included in both categories.
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.
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.
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
- New Jersey
- New York
States that offer state-level financial aid and in-state tuition rates
- New Mexico
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.
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 Cesar Chavez Educational Fund awards this annual scholarship of $5,000 for up to 10 students. Eligible students should be of Latino descent, taking classes full-time, have a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and live in Arizona or the central valley of California and attending a college or university in that area. Applicants can be US citizens, permanent legal residents, DACA recipients, California Dreamers, undocumented, or eligible non-citizens as determined by FAFSA. The scholarship application requires a 500 word essay relating to Cesar Chavez, two letters of recommendation, most recent high school or college transcripts, a resume, and the FAFSA student aid report. If you are not eligible for FAFSA, contact the organization via email to receive alternative proof of income forms. As part of these alternative proof of income forms, you may need to have tax documents such as the 1040 or W-2 on hand, for yourself or your parents, if you are a dependent. The deadline for the 2020-2021 award year is currently yet to be announced, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Que Llueva Café scholarship
The Chicano Organizing and Research in Education (CORE) group offers the Que Llueva Café scholarship each year, which is intended to correct the injustices faced by undocumented students attempting to pursue an education. Worth up to $500, the scholarship is available to incoming freshmen who have recently graduated from high school, are undocumented or covered under DACA, and currently reside in the US or Puerto Rico. To apply, students must submit the completed application, one letter of recommendation (up to two will be accepted), a copy of their high school transcript, and a 1,000 word personal statement covering the applicant's financial need, their undocumented status, and a response to one of four essay prompts. Historically, the application is due at the end of March each year, however the deadline has been extended to July 31, 2020 as a result of COVID-19.
The Golden Door Scholarship
The Golden Door Scholarship is aimed at assisting undocumented and DACA-eligible students in their goal to achieve higher education by partnering with several universities to maintain the fund. Award amounts can vary. Eligible students are covered by DACA, have Temporary Protected Status, or meet the immigration eligibility criteria (if undocumented), as well as have a high school diploma or GED, actively apply for other scholarships, and be willing to apply for one of the partner schools (attending a partner school is encouraged, but not required). Completed applications must include most recent high school or college transcripts, class rank and size, information about leadership experiences and extracurricular activities, and an essay (using prompts from the Common Application website). Recipients must maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA in their college courses each semester. The Golden Door Scholarship typically begins accepting applications over the summer in preparation for the coming fall semester.
Los Hermanos de Stanford Scholarship
The Los Hermanos de Stanford Scholarship is funded by a brotherhood of Latino graduates of Stanford University, intended for students of Latino heritage attending any two-year or four-year college program regardless of their immigration status. Awards range from $500 to $1,000. To be eligible, applicants must be recent high school graduates who demonstrate academic excellence, cultural awareness, and a dedication to community service. Financial need is considered, and applicants will be required to provide a social security number or taxpayer identification number prior to receiving the award. The application requires a school transcript, a personal information form, two essay responses, a profile of the school the student will be attending, and a copy of a financial aid award letter from that college. One letter of recommendation may be included, but is not required. While applications are typically due in April or May, the deadline has been extended to fall 2020 as a result of COVID-19.
The Anhelo Project Dream Scholarship
The Anhelo Project Dream Scholarship is designed to aid undocumented students within Illinois in attending college. Applicants do not need to have DACA status, and can be of any race or ethnicity. Eligible applicants must be Illinois residents attending a high school, college, university or vocational training program within the state of Illinois, and be enrolled full-time in one of the aforementioned post-secondary institutions for the Fall 2020 semester. Applicants should also have a GPA of 2.5 or higher and be willing to commit to 20 hours of volunteer work with The Anhelo Project in the coming school year. Award amounts vary from year to year. To apply, students will need to submit two letters of recommendation (on official letterhead) from teachers or counselors, with one detailing academic success and community involvement, and the other addressing financial hardships caused by their undocumented status, an unofficial transcript, a resume or curriculum vitae, proof of income for yourself and/or your parents, and a checklist affirming all of the above has been included. The application also contains a short (300 word) essay section. The deadline to apply is typically January 31 of each year.
The Dream.US Scholarships
The Dream.US offers two scholarships, aimed at helping DACA-eligible students obtain college education. The first is the national scholarship, available to those who meet DACA, Temporary Protected Status, or immigration eligibility criteria (if undocumented), as well as qualify for in-state tuition at a partnered university. This scholarship is worth up to $14,500 for two-year degrees, or $29,000 for four-year degrees. Applicants for the national scholarship must demonstrate financial need, have a high school GPA of 2.5 or higher, have graduated or will soon graduate from high school, have not been enrolled in a four-year college before (or exceed 21 credits at a community college), and be eligible for the in-state tuition for a partner college. Applicants need to provide transcripts, proof of DACA/TPS status, financial information demonstrating need, lists of academic achievements, community service, and/or home obligations, and complete two 750 word essays.
The second is the opportunity scholarship, available to those who have DACA, TPS or meet immigration eligibility criteria but live in states where in-state tuition is unavailable, as well as admission to an Opportunity Partner College. The opportunity scholarship is worth up to $80,000. The opportunity scholarship's applicants must be from a state where they are required to pay out-of-state rates, or are not allowed to attend public universities at all, have graduated from high school in that state, have taken the SAT or ACT, intend to start a bachelor's degree program at an opportunity partner school, and have financial need. Opportunity scholarship partner schools are listed as Delaware State University, Christian Brothers University, Eastern Connecticut State University, and the Trinity Washington University, a women's college in DC.
Both scholarships typically open applications in November of each year, and will accept through January 30 for the opportunity scholarship, or February 27 for the national scholarship.
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.
Many colleges across the country, but particularly in the southwestern US, are home to DREAMer clubs, which are designed to provide support and assistance to undocumented students. You do not need to be undocumented to join these clubs, as they also engage in activism and advocacy on behalf of their fellow students. As student-run organizations, these clubs do require engagement and proactive behavior on the part of the student body, meaning that they can be a great source for finding passionate allies. DREAMer clubs can focus on culture, finding scholarships and other funding opportunities open to undocumented students, obtaining legal assistance, or providing safe spaces where undocumented students can relax without worry.
UndocuAlly Training Programs
The UndocuAlly program began on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, which has long been a staunch supporter of the rights of undocumented students, but has since spread to schools around the country. UndocuAlly is a training program primarily aimed at faculty and staff of universities to teach them about the plight of undocumented students, including history, statistical data, what it means to be an ally, and how to connect with undocumented students. The offices of faculty members who have passed this training are usually decorated with a special UndocuAlly sticker depicting a butterfly, signaling that this faculty member is educated in the issues undocumented students face and is willing to provide a safe space to discuss with them. Organizations such as thedream.US, mentioned above for their scholarship programs, also facilitate this training.
Hispanic/Latino Student Alliance
While the name may vary slightly from school to school, the goal of the Hispanic/Latino Student Alliance is to form a community between Latino and Hispanic students attending their college, regardless of immigration status. These organizations are often run by students who are highly sympathetic to the immigration struggles of undocumented students. While smaller organizations on campus may exist alongside a Latino Student Alliance, the LSA is often the largest, and responsible for planning events that cater to Latino students or share Latino culture.
Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán
MEChA is a student organization found at colleges across the US with a history spanning back over 40 years. They are a politically active organization, driven towards correcting the injustices faced by Latino, Chicano, and Hispanic students, and as such are often very aware of the difficulties faced by undocumented students. Their organizations also encourage an awareness of culture, history, and social programs related to Latino heritage.
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 National Immigrant Justice Center is an organization dedicated to immigration justice, and provides legal assistance to low-income immigrants, for free or at minimal cost, within the Chicago region. While their reach with legal aid is somewhat limited, the NIJC remains on top of the issues facing undocumented immigrants, DACA recipients, and Dreamers. At present, they can assist those who need to file DACA renewals remotely, and for free.
The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund
The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund is an organization dedicated to preventing discrimination and fighting for the rights of Latino peoples within the US, and explicitly modeled after the success of the NAACP. Expanding access to and success in higher education for Latinos is one of their stated goals. MALDEF largely focuses on major cases rather than assistance with immigration, but the organization may be willing to assist in cases of discrimination, policy changes which negatively affect Latino students, or other similar situations, and does maintain advice about immigrants' rights, particularly those clarified in court cases with which MALDEF had involvement.
East Bay Community Law Center
The East Bay Community Law Center is a legal clinic operated by the University of California at Berkeley's School of Law, which provides free legal aid and access to resources relating to immigration law to undocumented students at Berkeley. They can set up appointments for legal advising, as well as offer information on what steps to take after certain barriers have been cleared, such as how to obtain a driver's license in California after being DACA approved. Aside from students, the East Bay Community Law Center can also assist family members and spouses of students. This law center is only one of many such legal clinics operated by universities throughout the US, and similar services may be available in other areas of the country.