Pursuing the American Dream Expert Advice & Resources for Undocumented College Students

Many undocumented students don’t think about going to college because of legal or financial concerns or simply because of lack of information. It is true that undocumented students face a number of hurdles when it comes to a college education, but that doesn’t mean it’ s entirely out of reach. Learn more about tuition and enrollment policies, financial aid and scholarships, and get expert advice on how to overcome barriers in your pursuit of the American dream.

The Facts About Undocumented Students & College

An undocumented immigrant is any non-U.S. citizen who comes into the country without authorization and/or legitimate documentation — or who stays in the U.S. past their authorization. Undocumented immigrants who want to attend college in the U.S. face a number of challenges that students with documentation don’t encounter. Here are five key things undocumented students need to know about college admissions, tuition and fees and financial aid:

Undocumented immigrants can apply to college

Many undocumented students aren’t sure if they can legally attend college in the U.S. Some automatically assume they can’t. However, there are no federal or state laws prohibiting the admission of undocumented immigrants to U.S. colleges, and schools aren’t required to report undocumented applicants or students to immigration officials.

State governments, however, may prohibit undocumented applicants from attending public colleges. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2015, public postsecondary institutions in Alabama and South Carolina do not admit most undocumented immigrants.

Individual colleges or state boards of higher education also weigh in. For instance, the Georgia State Board of Regents prohibits undocumented students from attending certain state universities. Most states, however, have provisions that do allow undocumented students to enroll in college.

Each state deals with in-state tuition differently

As of April 2017, the National Immigration Law Center lists 21 states plus D.C. as having tuition equity laws or policies in place at some or all of their higher education institutions. This means undocumented students residing in those states can take advantage of less expensive in-state tuition and fees if they’re accepted and enroll.

It may be harder to get financial aid, but it’s not impossible

Undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid. Individual states and colleges, however, distribute separate financial aid packages, and have the authority to control how that money is spent. Some states, such as California and Texas, offer state financial aid to undocumented students. As of April 2017, eight states, plus D.C., take this approach, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Many organizations also offer scholarships to undocumented students.

DACA students have more access

Students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status often have more access to higher education than undocumented immigrants without this status. That’s because DACA gives qualifying students “lawfully present” status. Therefore, even in Alabama and South Carolina, DACA students can apply to most public postsecondary institutions, although other undocumented students cannot.

That doesn’t mean these students receive in-state tuition, however. Each state individually legislates the process through which DACA students apply for college, and state policies vary widely. In Georgia, for example, DACA status still doesn’t equate to in-state tuition. And in Arizona, although DACA students receive in-state tuition at certain state institutions, they aren’t entitled to state financial aid.

Policies and laws can change quickly

Tuition equity, DACA status and state aid for undocumented students are national and state-level controversial issues. State-legislated policies may conflict with those issued by boards of higher education as well as individual schools. When an Arizona community college gave DACA students reduced tuition in 2013, for instance, the state sued.

Because policies can change quickly, it’s important for students to stay informed. There are several websites and organizations listed in this guide that offer up-to-date information on policies and laws affecting undocumented immigrants.

Policies Protecting Undocumented Students

The following national policies, both existing and proposed, are designed to help undocumented students pursue and finance a college education, avoid deportation and maintain privacy.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

Anyone who came to the U.S. before turning 16 and who was 30 years old or younger on June 15, 2012, can apply for DACA consideration through the Department of Homeland Security, as long as they have been physically present in the U.S. since 2012, have a high school diploma or honorable military discharge papers, and have no felony convictions. Obtaining DACA status temporarily removes the chance of deportation. DACA students are also eligible to legally work in the U.S. for two years and receive a social security number. This policy makes undocumented students eligible for state and college financial aid and/or in-state tuition in many states.

Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act

Since 2001, some members of Congress have tried to pass the DREAM Act, which would clear a pathway to citizenship or legal residency for undocumented students who attend college or join the military. It would also make federal loans available to undocumented students. Though the bill has never passed into federal law, individual states have passed their own DREAM acts. As of 2016, Illinois, California and Minnesota have all used the DREAM moniker to pass state legislation creating financial aid funds specifically for undocumented students. Several other states and D.C. have adopted similar policies to provide state aid and in-state tuition status to undocumented students.

Family Educational and Privacy Act (FERPA)

FERPA applies to all students, not just undocumented ones. Once students turn 18, they hold the rights to their educational records. Under FERPA, schools and colleges may not release educational records without a student’s permission. There are exceptions, however, for example, if there is a subpoena or court order in the case of extenuating circumstances. Schools are allowed release “directory information” — basic info like name and address — unless students request otherwise.

Tuition Policies by State

State tuition policies are not easy to pin down. In some cases, state governments have explicitly made undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition if they meet certain criteria. Most must meet residency requirements, and some states mandate that students apply within a specified number of years after finishing high school. Conversely, some states have legally prohibited undocumented students from receiving aid. Many states have no laws at all, effectively leaving it to boards of regents or individual institutions to create policies.

Below is an overview of state tuition policies and other requirements as of 2017.

Advocacy Organizations & Programs

There’s a lot of vague or conflicting information about undocumented students. In a quickly shifting policy environment, it’s best to look for intel and resources from advocacy organizations dedicated to making a college education a reality for undocumented immigrants. Such organizations and programs include the following:

  • Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC)

    Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC) works to remove the political, legal and systemic constraints undocumented students face in getting a degree or starting a career. Although E4FC is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, some of its programs are national in scope. Its Dreamer Intake Service is an online service that allows students to fill out their individual information and then receive a personalized legal memo detailing immigration strategies to pursue. They can then take this memo to a local immigration attorney or nonprofit legal service.

  • Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)

    Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is a civil rights organization that offers legal representation to Latinos throughout the U.S. It documents its efforts on its homepage on a near-daily basis, serving as a de facto news service on litigation related to immigrant rights, voting rights, employment and education.

  • National Council of La Raza (NCLR)

    As part of its broad agenda of supporting Latino communities, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) is concerned with educational attainment and nondiscriminatory immigration policies. Student advocates should look to its extensive affiliate network to find community organizations working alongside NCLR on these issues.

  • National Immigration Law Center

    The National Immigration Law Center files lawsuits on behalf of low-income immigrants in addition to developing position papers aimed at both the public and policymakers. It has developed model language that states can adopt to grant tuition equity to undocumented students, and it tracks state bills that affect immigrants’ access to education.

  • United We Dream

    United We Dream is a youth-led organization that fights for fair treatment of young immigrants. Active in 26 states, United We Dream assists families threatened with deportation. Also, through its DREAM Educational Empowerment Program (DEEP), it supplies online toolkits for youth attempting to go to college. One initiative available to administrators is UndocuPeers, a certification program that teaches K-12 and higher education officials how to better serve undocumented students.

Financial Aid FAQs

Access and affordability go hand in hand. Although this guide can’t provide the same in-depth knowledge offered by a financial aid adviser, it can help guide you when it comes to some of the more fundamental financial aid questions.

As an undocumented student, am I eligible for federal financial aid?

No. Federal Pell Grants, direct student loans and work-study are all off-limits to undocumented students.

Am I eligible for other financial aid?

It depends. Some states allow undocumented students to apply for state financial aid using the same process as U.S. citizens. Others, such as Illinois, have separate mechanisms for undocumented students seeking financial aid. Most individual colleges also exercise considerable discretion over how to distribute their own funds, which come from their endowments, alumni foundations and other sources. There are also several scholarship opportunities that are open to all students, regardless of immigration status. For some examples, jump down to the scholarship section of this guide.

My state or college requires the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to apply for state or institutional aid. Should I submit it?

Probably not. Students need a social security number to submit the FAFSA, and DACA is the only way for an undocumented student to get a social security number.

Whether DACA students should submit a FAFSA is debatable. Many states, educational institutions and private scholarship foundations use it to determine a student’s financial need, so not filling it out could potentially block access to free money. But some people are understandably hesitant about providing this information unnecessarily to the federal government. The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, for instance, recommends students print out the FAFSA with the completed information and submit it only to the educational institution and/or scholarship foundation being applied to, but not to send it to the federal government. Schools and other institutions can determine financial need from the information on the application, and students bypass the step of providing data at the federal level.

Is it safe to tell a financial aid counselor my immigration status?

This depends on your personal level of comfort. Counselors are not legally permitted to ask about students’ status, and, if they are aware of it, are not required to report undocumented students to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In many cases, disclosing status can actually be helpful, as a financial aid counselor’s job is to help students get through college. The more they know about an individual’s circumstances, the more they can design a strategy that fits that student’s needs, such as by pointing out workarounds to the FAFSA dilemma. The Office of Federal Student Aid recommends this approach.

What happens if I lie about my status when filling out applications?

You could get into legal trouble. Using a social security number that isn’t yours is a federal crime. That’s especially bad if you try to submit the FAFSA illegally, but it’s also unacceptable for college applications. If you’re asked about your social security number on an application, leave it blank. If you’re working on an online application where that’s not an option, enter 000-00-0000. And if that still doesn’t work, fill out a paper application. The same principle holds true if you’re asked about country of citizenship.

What is an ITIN? Should I get one?

An ITIN is an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. It’s for people, including undocumented immigrants, who don’t qualify for social security numbers but still pay federal taxes. The National Immigration Law Center explains why undocumented immigrants in general would want to do this. Students with ITINs may see specific advantages. For example, some states accept ITIN numbers for college savings accounts that earn interest and/or for prepaid tuition plans that insulate students from future price increases.

What can I do to make college more affordable?

Private scholarships are one promising source of funds. (Several are listed below.) There are also steps you can take before you even graduate from high school, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. For example, you can rack up Advanced Placement (AP) credits, allowing you to opt out of certain general requirements in college. You won’t have to take and pay for those classes, and that can help you graduate faster, which means you’d pay less tuition over time. Many states have programs that allow high school students to take AP classes for free online. Some states even subsidize the cost of testing fees for low-income students. (The Education Commission of the States keeps a state-by-state profile.)

Once you get in to college, too, there may be ways to earn credit cheaply, even for students in states that don’t normally offer in-state tuition. Jenesis Long, an academic counselor at Oregon State University, notes, “If you’re an out-of-state student, for example, in the summer maybe your college grants everyone in-state tuition. Take a lot of credits then if you can.”

Scholarships for Undocumented Students

Many scholarships have residency or citizenship requirements, but not all. The following 10 scholarships are either specifically targeted to undocumented students, or encourage them to apply:

Amount: $10,000

Although not specifically for undocumented students, this award does not discriminate on the basis of national identity—quite the opposite. The Davis-Putter Scholarship goes to undergraduate and graduate students working for social or economic justice in their communities. In addition to transcripts, applicants submit a personal statement, letters of recommendation that attest to their progressivism, and financial information. Activism is the key criteria.

Last updated: 2017
Amount: Unspecified

Any aspiring undergrad with DACA or TPS status can apply for this award, but the scholarship committee prioritizes students in states that bar DACA students from receiving in-state tuition benefits. Scholarships are distributed on the basis of academic merit and leadership abilities, and go toward attendance at one of 17 partner schools. To maintain funding, scholarship recipients must earn a 3.0 GPA.

Last updated: 2016
Amount: $500-$10,000

The Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corporation (HENAAC) distributes multiple scholarships each year; some require U.S. citizenship but many do not. Applicants should be entering a STEM field at the undergraduate or graduate level, have a 3.0 GPA, have strong ties to the Hispanic community, and show leadership at the community or campus level.

Last updated: 5/1/2017
Amount: $500-$5,000

DACA students of Hispanic heritage are eligible for HSF funds, whether they’re off to community college or grad school. Merit is the main factor in who receives funding, while financial need determines how much. High school graduates with a GPA of 3.0 or higher are considered; current college students need a 2.5 to be eligible.

Last updated: 4/28/2017
Amount: $500-$1,000

The residency requirements for this award state only that applicants must reside in the U.S., leaving the door open to undocumented students who have completed at least one year of undergraduate study with a 2.8 GPA. Those who receive funding should have a demonstrable history of civic leadership in the Latino community, which should be supported in a reference letter. Graduate students are welcome to apply.

Last updated: 2016
Amount: Up to $20,000

Just one of the awards offered by the Geneseo Migrant Center, the Migrant Farmworker Baccalaureate Scholarship goes to students who have already completed one year of higher education and need financial help to complete the last three. Applicants submit three letters of recommendation, a personal essay, college transcripts, financial documents and agricultural migrant status documentation.

Last updated: 2014
Amount: Unspecified

Chicano Organizing & Research in Education (CORE) gives this award to undocumented high school graduates of Chicano and Latino descent who are getting ready to enroll in a U.S. college. Scholarships are granted based on the candidate’s personal narrative, extracurricular activities and academic potential.

Last updated: 5/18/2015
Amount: Unspecified

Membership in SHPE is a prerequisite for earning any of the society’s scholarships, but citizenship or legal status is not required except for some corporate-funded awards. SHPE provides separate awards for graduating high school seniors, undergraduates, graduate students, working students and doctoral candidates. Each award requires students to hold a 2.75 GPA and be pursuing a degree in a STEM field. Scholarship decisions and funding amounts depend on academic merit and financial need.

Last updated: 3/1/2017
Amount: $12,500-$25,000 (renewable)

The National Scholarship helps students who are eligible for in-state tuition attend one of 75 colleges that partner with TheDream.Us. To receive the award —worth $12,500 toward an associate or $25,000 toward a bachelor’s degree — students must hold a high school or community college degree but not be currently enrolled in college; must demonstrate significant financial need; and must have applied for or received DACA status. (Scholarship applicants need only be eligible for DACA, but to actually receive the award they will need to seek DACA status.) Applicants submit two essays, household income statements, a reference and DACA documentation. Full-time students who earn a 3.0 can renew the award.

Last updated: 3/8/2017
Amount: $20,000 (renewable)

This award from TheDream.Us is for students from 15 states who aren’t eligible for in-state tuition or admission to a public college. The Opportunity Scholarship helps them work toward a baccalaureate at one of 5 out-of-state colleges that partner with TheDream.Us. To receive the award, students must be currently unenrolled in college, be DACA-eligible, demonstrate significant financial need, and hold a high school diploma and 2.8 GPA. Applicants submit two essays, household income statements, a reference and DACA documentation. Full-time students who earn a 3.0 can renew the award.

Last updated: 2/1/2017

Tips for Success

  • Be intentional about where you apply

    Some states and schools are extremely open to undocumented students, while others discourage them. Look for schools that have strong, established programs for underrepresented students. For instance, University of California, Merced runs an orientation program for undocumented students, while University of Washington maintains an “Ally Directory” where students can find mentors on campus. Such actions suggest these schools are actively recruiting undocumented students, and are committed to supporting them throughout their college experience.

  • If necessary, ask hypothetical questions to get information

    Not every school has explicit policies or programs welcoming undocumented students. In such cases, “There’s a lot of potential benefit in talking in ‘what-if’ scenarios,” says Long. She recommends calling a school office and inquiring about resources for a hypothetical student whose circumstances match yours; there’s no obligation to disclose your name.

  • Find a mentor on campus

    “Mentors really matter,” says Long. “But it can be really hard to find a mentor, especially around identity specifically. Find someone you can talk to about your real situation, authentically and honestly, so you don’t have to be concerned with navigating the entire university and institution process on your own.”

    For many students, a mentor may be a fellow student, but if possible find someone with more experience within the college. “A mentor like an academic counselor or a support staff is going to have a relationship you don’t. They can refer you to the best person possible in different departments because they’ve been interacting with them for years. So it’s not you walking in blindly with your heart on your sleeve, saying, ‘I hope you don’t judge me.’”

  • Communicate with family to find balance

    Many undocumented students are the first in their families to go to college and may feel responsible for helping their families overcome financial, legal or language barriers. Long says some of her students go home every weekend to help with errands or skip classes so they can translate at doctor visits, which can take focus off school: “If you’re dealing with immigration lawyers, and your family is dealing with issues that other families aren’t going through, it takes a huge emotional toll. Being a student is only as feasible as your brain space can handle.”

    It’s critical to find a realistic way to juggle both academic and personal demands, and successful students put themselves first when they need to. Only then can they effectively manage multiple priorities without getting burnt out. Long advises, “Be open and honest about your different responsibilities, even if [your family] doesn’t understand that you really need to study for 12 hours that weekend.”

  • Always think ahead about financial aid

    Financing an education doesn’t stop once you get in, and Long notes that it’s the main thing she discusses with her students. The good news, she says, is that there are some valuable programs designed to let students cheaply earn credits. Long advises her students to learn the ins and outs of what’s required, and what their responsibilities are. How many credits do you need to maintain your scholarship? Do the credits have to come from a specific institution?

    Long points out that Oregon State, for example, partners with every community college in the state, so that students can take credits at community college and pay lower tuition, even as they remain OSU students living on campus and getting OSU financial aid. “If you have a scholarship, know your requirements and communicate them with your adviser. This is really important so you can get what you need.”

Additional Resources for Information & Support

  • Migration Policy Institute (MPI)

    A think tank based in D.C., MPI publishes fact sheets and policy briefs about immigration to the U.S. from countries across the world. Its DACA briefs provide hard data about the impacts of the program, which can help students make a decision about whether to pursue DACA status.

  • My Documented Life

    What started out as a personal blog is now a virtual repository of resources for undocumented students, featuring everything from testimonials to scholarship listings to internships. Students can reach out to one another by joining the UndocuGrads National Network or UndocuUndergrads National Network.

  • National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA)

    NASFAA’s members are those who know the most about state financial aid policies. The organization’s website includes a section for students that features a U.S. map redirecting to state financial aid websites; an annually updated list of federal tax incentives for students; and links to tuition exchange programs that can extend undocumented students’ college search into nearby states.

  • Pre-Health Dreamers

    Most resources for undocumented students cover the process of earning an associate or bachelor’s degree. The three students behind Pre-Health Dreamers (PHD) saw a gap in resources for students pursuing an advanced degree. The site, which emphasizes medical degrees, includes a regularly updated list of scholarships for undocumented students pursuing PhDs, as well as a member’s network.

  • uLead Network

    The University Leaders for Educational Access and Diversity (uLEAD) network aggregates information from college administrators. To keep the public informed about educational policy, it publishes a frequently updated state-by-state guide to legislation affecting undocumented students.