Pursuing the American Dream

By ACO Staff

Published on September 21, 2021

Pursuing the American Dream

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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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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