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Undocumented students face many hurdles on the way to a college education. But getting a degree is far from impossible.
How being undocumented affects college attendance
There’s no federal law barring undocumented students from attending college, although two states — South Carolina and Alabama — prohibit undocumented applicants from attending public colleges.
Many undocumented students can get a degree through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. It’s an Obama-era initiative that protects undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors from being deported. The status, renewable every two years, allows these immigrants to legally work and attend college in the United States. Almost 650,000 undocumented immigrants held DACA status as of March 2020, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
But undocumented students can't get federal financial aid like U.S. citizens do. Twenty states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six states — Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri and South Carolina — have laws prohibiting undocumented students from qualifying for in-state tuition. In all other states, admission and in-state vs. out-of-state charges are left to the discretion of colleges and universities.
In September 2017, the Trump administration announced plans to phase out DACA, and new applications are no longer being accepted. A court order in January 2018 partially blocking the phaseout means the future of DACA will play out in court and in Congress. Throughout 2018, three federal appeals courts — in California, New York and Washington, D.C. — upheld the lower court's order.
In the meantime, DACA recipients — known as Dreamers — can still apply to and pay for college. Here are 10 tips for how to do it.
How Dreamers can apply to college
1. CONTACT POTENTIAL COLLEGES’ CENTERS FOR UNDOCUMENTED STUDENTS
“Although not on every campus, these centers can provide information on applying to the university and help answer questions about things like financial aid for undocumented students,” says Andrea Gaytan, director of the AB540 and Undocumented Student Center at the University of California, Davis. “More than that, they can continue to be a resource and community while you’re in school,” she adds.
2. ASK ADMISSIONS OFFICES HOW YOUR STATUS WILL AFFECT THE APPLICATION PROCESS
“Some schools will treat undocumented students like domestic applicants, meaning they’ll consider them with the same financial aid policies as they do for U.S. citizens,” says Joel Hart, associate dean of admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, California. “Most schools, however, will treat undocumented students as international students, meaning they’ll be competing for more limited financial aid dollars,” he says. Students should contact every school on their list to learn how their application will be treated.
3. CONSIDER THE CAMPUS AND ITS SURROUNDING COMMUNITY
“It will be important to feel comfortable and safe not only on campus, but also in the outlying town or city you will be living in throughout your college career. Think about what the community has to offer in terms of a positive social climate and services for undocumented people,” Gaytan advises.
4. WORK WITH COLLEGE ACCESS PROGRAMS WHILE IN HIGH SCHOOL
These programs hold informational meetings and often offer test prep courses, says Rebecca Merrick, an international student advisor at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. To find a college access program in your area, ask a teacher or local college, or try your nearest YMCA chapter.
5. EMBRACE YOUR IDENTITY
Fear often plays a large part in the college application process for undocumented students, as many are reluctant to reveal their immigration status in case of potential repercussions.
“Don’t be afraid to embrace your identity as an undocumented student when appropriate,” Hart says. “Sometimes that identity arises from a powerfully compelling story that only you can tell about yourself, like in an essay.”
How Dreamers can pay for college
6. LOOK FOR PRIVATE SCHOLARSHIPS WHILE IN HIGH SCHOOL
The ideal time to start looking for scholarships is early in your senior year of high school, or in the year prior to attending college. “For undocumented students, private scholarships can offer important coverage for discretionary costs like meals, housing, transportation and books in addition to covering your tuition,” says Gaytan of UC Davis. “Take a look at civic organizations in your hometown, as well as your prospective college campus, for available scholarships.”
» MORE: How to get a scholarship
7. ASK COLLEGES IF YOU QUALIFY FOR INSTITUTIONAL AID
Though undocumented students cannot receive federal financial aid, they can receive institutional aid, and in a few cases they can receive financial aid from their state. “The student will need to check with their admissions counselor and/or financial aid counselor for the policies of the college or university that they are interested in, because each institution is different,” says Stephanie Tolbert, senior vice president for enrollment at Louisburg College in Louisburg, North Carolina.
8. ASK IF THE COLLEGE WAIVES APPLICATION FEES DUE TO FINANCIAL NEED
“Many colleges have a policy like this, even if they don’t necessarily advertise it,” says Hart from Pomona. “Don’t assume that every school will be unwilling to provide financial assistance.”
How Dreamers can stay informed
9. FOLLOW POLICY CHANGES
“Gain an understanding of the landscape,” says Melissa Quan, associate director of Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life in Connecticut. Laws aimed at undocumented immigrants are constantly changing, so staying in the know will inform your decisions about college and beyond. If you’re unsure whether you qualify for admission, financial aid or anything else, be sure to ask and double-check any answers you receive.
10. COMPLETE THE FAFSA
Before you fill out the FAFSA, contact your school's financial aid office and explain your situation. Completing the form may help you organize documents that help you qualify for in-state tuition or apply for scholarships or institutional grants.
“Many undocumented students assume — and perhaps are even advised — that because they are not eligible for federal financial aid, they cannot, or should not, complete the FASFA form,” Quan says. “However, this is not true in all cases. For students with DACA status, completing the FAFSA form or the CSS profile can help them gather the information needed to apply for other forms of financial aid for which they are eligible.”