Sunday, December 4, 2022

A Guide to Going to College for DACA and Undocumented Students

Yep — it's possible! 💪🏼

At the heart of the American Dream that draws millions of people to the US each year is access to a good education. 🇺🇸 

But what if you’re undocumented? The good news is that undocumented students can go to college! 🥳 However, the road to a college degree may not be easy for you.

undocumented female student graduating high school and looking forward to college
Undocumented students are welcome to go to college in the US — but it’s definitely not going to be easy. Photo: Juan Ramos/Unsplash

From available financial aid to which schools offer in-state tuition rates, let this comprehensive guide serve as your go-to manual for undocumented students who want to attend college.

Who Are Undocumented and DACA Students?

An undocumented student is an immigrant in the United States without legal status. 

More often than not, they have parents who came to the country without proper visas or breached their status terms, for example by staying longer than their visa allowed. It could also be people who are still in the process of legalization.

In fact, the US has around 620,000 K-12 students who are not legal citizens. The majority (or 54 percent) comes from Central and South American countries, namely Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala. 

That’s because secondary schooling in the US is guaranteed by law for all children — whether you’re a legal citizen or not. However, things get significantly harder for undocumented students who want to pursue a college degree. The three main areas that pose challenges are admissions, financial aid, and tuition.

young female undocumented student in public school searching for potential colleges
Being an immigrant without legal status in the United States won’t keep you from getting a quality education. Photo: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

Undocumented students are barred from receiving federal financial aid, so paying college tuition could be too much of a burden. Not to mention that many colleges continue to charge these students out-of-state tuition rates despite living in the area all their lives! 😵‍💫

Created as an extension of the DREAM Act (that failed to pass Congress), DACA grants a work permit, alongside health insurance and two-year protection, to help eligible undocumented minors sort out their finances.

While the program caters to undocumented students, not everyone can be a beneficiary. If you want to start your DACA journey, you need to:  

  • Have entered the US before turning 16 years old
  • Be under 31 years of age as of June 15, 2012
  • Have continuously resided in the US from June 15, 2007, to the present
  • Been physically present in the US on June 15, 2012, and at the time of requesting consideration
  • Be currently enrolled in or have returned to school, have graduated high school, have obtained a certificate of completion (for example a GED), or have been honorably discharged from the army or coast guard
  • Have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or pose a threat to national security or public safety

Applying to College as an Undocumented Student

Let’s repeat the good news: as an undocumented person in the US, you are still legally eligible to attend college! But what do you need to know about getting started?

serious undocumented student filling out online college application forms
Admissions policies, tuition, and financial aid – these areas pose the biggest challenges for undocumented students. Photo: Mars Sector-6/Unsplash

READ MORE: How to Apply to College: 9 Steps to Application Success

Admission Policies for Undocumented Students

One thing you must remember is that there are different admissions policies for each state and college. While there are no particular national laws demanding the rejection of undocumented students, institutional policies are a whole other ballgame. 🏫

In 2008, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement clarified that “individual states must decide for themselves whether or not to admit illegal aliens into their public postsecondary institutions.”

young happy student with undocumented status admitted to college
Discover the states that welcome undocumented students with open arms. These are your tickets to an easier application. Photo: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

Only a few states, such as Alabama and South Carolina, deny undocumented students access to public two-year and four-year institutions, which are usually cheaper than private schools in terms of tuition. But even if most states are friendly to undocumented students, it’s a good idea to read the fine print of each school’s admission policies. 👀

You’ll still find public and private universities that refuse admission to undocumented applicants or treat them as international students. The latter may not seem like such a bad deal, but remember that this could limit your scholarship and financial aid options.

To gain access to or navigate some college resources, undocumented students must disclose their legal status to school authorities. 

But, importantly, should you fear deportation? The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act forbids schools from disclosing most confidential student information to non-school persons, including government agents. 

Plus, if you’re part of the DACA program, you’re temporarily exempted from being forcefully thrown out of the US. 

Paying for College as an Undocumented Student

Student loans, federal aid, and scholarships — these are the usual suspects when it comes to how college folks pay their tuition and bills. But as an undocumented student, how can you access these?

broke college student sitting on a bench sad because of problems paying for college
Worried about how you’ll pay for college? There are still plenty of ways you can ease your burden despite not having legal status. Photo: pvproductions/Freepik

Again, yes! 🥳 Undocumented students do have options to finance their education. Here’s the rundown. 

READ MORE: How Much Does College Cost in the US? All You Need to Know

How Tuition Is Affected for Undocumented Students

A common question about tuition is: can I receive lower rates in a state I’ve lived in my whole life even if I’m undocumented? 🤔

The majority of the states pose a challenge to such students, whether charging them with the much higher out-of-state sticker prices or prohibiting them from applying in the first place (like Alabama and South Carolina). 

Either way, these policies can put a serious dent in your higher education plans. So you’d probably also want to be at a college that treats undocumented applicants as domestic students. 

Why? Because domestic students usually pay less for a college education and receive better financial aid packages than international students. 😉

undocumented student unable to pay for college sits with heads in hands with friend looking at bills
Undocumented students are eligible for in-state rates, but not all colleges will have the option for you. Photo: Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

It was hoped the DREAM Act — introduced in 2011 but yet to be approved in Congress  — would address the issue by allowing eligible individuals to qualify for in-state rates. 

But not all hope is lost! A handful of states allow undocumented students to pay resident tuition rates if they meet certain conditions, including attending and graduating from an in-state high school for a specified period or completing a GED alternative. 👍🏼

States Where Undocumented Students Can Access In-State Tuition Fees

There are 19 states that give undocumented students access to in-state tuition fees through state legislation or a decision of its Board of Regents. They are: 

  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Kansas
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Nebraska
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Washington

If you live in Hawaii, Maine, or Michigan, only certain universities offer resident tuition fees to undocumented students, including the University of Hawaii, Bates College, and the University of Michigan.

READ MORE: 23 Colleges You Can Attend Tuition-Free (Yes, They Do Exist!)

Private Colleges Undocumented Students Can Attend as Domestic Students

While it’s common for private institutions to consider undocumented applicants as international students, some colleges welcome them as locals once their status is declared. This includes: 

undocumented students sitting on grass at college studying after qualifying for in-state tuition
Being eligible for in-state tuition rates is a huge win. It’ll help your cause to find private colleges that include you in their policies. Photo: Keira Burton/Pexels

READ MORE: How Much Do College Classes and Credits Cost?

Financial Aid for Undocumented Students

When we talk about financial aid, we are referring to state or private grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study programs.

Unfortunately, these things can be a little harder to obtain when you don’t hold US citizenship but it doesn’t mean that it is impossible. 🤦🏼‍♀️

female undocumented student attending an interview for a private scholarship
No FAFSA? No problem! If federal aid is not in the cards, you can still access private loans, grants, and scholarships. Photo: yanalya/Freepik

How Financial Aid Differs for Undocumented Students

If you’re not a legal US citizen, you are not eligible to receive federal student financial aid. Heartbreaking, we know! So what about state financial aid?

While most states offering financial aid require applicants to be legal residents (and the same goes with private colleges in their area), some states implement friendlier policies allowing undocumented students to qualify. You’ll most probably find options that fit your situation. 💪🏼

So, how do you do this? Start with your high school counselor or reach out to the admissions officers of your prospective colleges. This might require you to disclose your legal status.  

Before you panic, know that FERPA allows you certain rights, including inspecting education records and procedures to do so; requesting amendment of records believed to be inaccurate; and authorizing disclosures of education records. But it’s also crucial to learn the law’s limitations and extensions before making a move. 

If this seems like a big undertaking, you should seek legal advice from professionals — we have some listed in the resources section below 😉. You can also check for various resources leading to scholarships or grants for non-citizens.

Asian high school counselor aids undocumented student with college and financial aid search
Get your high school advisor or counselor on board during your college search process. They might know a few colleges that could be a perfect fit. Photo: Monica Melton/Unsplash

READ MORE: These Are the Cheapest Colleges in the US

Colleges That Cover the Entire Financial Need of Undocumented Students

With all this talk about financial aid for undocumented students being in short supply, it’s important to remember that there are still colleges that pledge to meet 100 percent of your demonstrated need. Yes, even if you’re an undocumented student!

Colleges on this list include:

Dartmouth College (Hanover)

Princeton University (Princeton)

Reed College (Portland)

Vermont

You should expect more documents to be added to your list of application requirements before getting your hands on financial assistance.

Tips for Attending College as an Undocumented Student

Find Your Community 

Feeling alienated can be a common problem for undocumented students. With all the extra hoops you have to jump through just to attend college, it’s easy to be convinced that no one understands what you’re going through. 

a group of undocumented students having fun while walking around town
There’s nothing like finding people who know what you go through to make college more bearable (and interesting). Photo: Eliott Reyna/Unsplash

But remember, you’re not alone! You’re bound to find students who also fear being detained or have no clue how to find jobs that welcome someone with your status, and it will do you a world of good to find them. 👯‍♀️

Whether it’s through an established student club or just meeting up with some of your peers after class, your efforts will pay off when you’ve built a community that can support you during your studies. 

If you’re worried about revealing your status to find these people, apply to be part of the DACA program to protect yourself against any threat of deportation or work-study ineligibility. 

READ MORE: How to Make Friends in College: Our Staff’s Top 10 Tips

Participate in School Activities

When you’ve found friends to hang out with (or you want to add more people to your circle), immersing yourself in campus activities is the way to go! 💯

two undocumented students talking while taking a break from school sports and clubs
Campus events take your mind off loneliness, and it’s an excellent way to meet more people who can make your college stay memorable. Photo: Andrea Tummons/Unsplash

First, these extracurricular events can act as a healthy distraction from feelings of isolation normal for undocumented immigrants. Widening your world to more than just your dorm room (and your lecture halls) can vastly improve your mental health and social life. ✨

Plus, attend campus activities — whether it’s open mic nights, sports games, environmental campaigns, or guest lectures — since it can make you feel more at home and one with the school. 

Take Advantage of On-Campus Services

Struggling with the added pressures of being undocumented can affect your academic performance. A possible remedy is to capitalize on the various resources available on your campus!

male and female undocumented students using on campus coaching services
Taking advantage of on-campus services aimed to help you succeed can be a good move for undocumented students. Photo: vh-studio

Protect Your Mental Health

Maintaining high grades, working to pay rent, and dealing with student loan repayments can pretty much bring out the worst emotions in any student: anxiety, depression, fear, and demoralization. 😮‍💨

It can be worse for the undocumented as they struggle with mistrusting authority figures, lacking financial aid resources, and even handling the negative stigma surrounding their citizenship. But this is where on-campus health and wellness centers come in!

young male student in an appointment with a college mental health counselor
Don’t struggle alone! Set appointments with counselors or attend wellness seminars to help you overcome your mental health challenges. Photo: cottonbro/Unsplash

Big funds have recently come in to help colleges support struggling students. Take advantage of school counselors and psychologists who are ready to help once you set an appointment. 📆

Attend and participate in educational seminars or roundtable discussions on mental health that your school (or any student club) sets up. It’s good to ask experts specific questions about your situation, and who knows? You might find what you need to see things differently. 

Keep Connections Alive

Your family (including the friends you consider your family) will be your rock when times get tough. Staying connected with loved ones who listen and offer you comfort can pretty much make bad days better. 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦

Only got a C+ in your exam when you prepared all week? Received a special mention from your professor for a great paper? Tell your family or closest friends everything!

undocumented student in a video call session with her family
There’s nothing quite like family love. When the going gets tough, parents and siblings can give you the comfort you need. Photo: Christina Morillo/Pexels

They’re the people that can celebrate your wins and be real with you when you mess up. And trust us, frustrating language barriers and anxiously waiting to know if you’re qualified for DACA calls for the comfort only your family can provide.

If you’re living away from home or in another state, carve out time in your schedule to call them regularly. If you live close by, meet up for lunch or a coffee to stay connected

Resources for Undocumented Students 

Knowing the campus resources available to you as an undocumented student gives you an advantage from the get-go! 

These services — which include counseling, law centers, immigrant community groups, and cultural support networks — can undoubtedly have a positive impact on your four- to six-year college stay (or more 😉).  

Of course, you can find them on your own but if you don’t know where to start, the following organizations can help:

American Immigration Lawyers AssociationStudents can be updated with news about DACA and the DREAM Act. The association also offers legal assistance for immigrants. 
Dream Educational Empowerment Program Resource GuideA resource compilation of immigrant-related community groups, websites, and federal policies.
Legal MatchA search portal connecting students to specialized immigration attorneys. 
TheDream.us Students mainly receive scholarships but are also connected with scholar advisors and fellow peers. 
Immigrants RisingStudents can expect mentorship, coaching, and group support services. 
American Immigration Council Students can receive free legal assistance and participate in webinars relevant to their experience. 
Repository of Resources for Undocumented StudentsA collection of resources concerning admissions, support organizations, financial aid, and scholarships. 
National Immigration Law CenterAn organization exclusively dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of low-income immigrants.
CitizenPath – DACA Resource Center A resource center that includes a DACA application and information on other related concerns. 
US Citizenship and Immigration ServicesFederal resources on DACA, including updates and FAQs.
Annotated Initial DACA Application PacketAn annotated guide for students who wish to apply for DACA as an initial request. It provides insights on common application inquiries.
University Leaders for Educational Access and DiversityAn online network of university leaders committed to broadening higher education access. Students can learn more about each state’s admission policies here.

Other Higher Education Options for Undocumented Students

If a traditional four-year college isn’t for you, there are still several education alternatives for undocumented students in the US that can put you on a stable career path. 

Online Colleges

Usually, the biggest perk that comes with remote learning is convenience. The ability to attend your classes from virtually anywhere in the world means you don’t need to fret about relocation and travel costs. 🚍

female students attending an online class
There are plenty of good online colleges that don’t discriminate against you based on your lack of legal status. Photo: Artem Podrez/Pexels

But if you’re undocumented, remote learning means that you’re free to find an institution that understands your situation, even if it’s not within your state.

An online college also makes it easier on the wallet since you’re forgoing a lot of traditional college expenses like residence, meal plans, and miscellaneous fees. 

Modern States’ Freshman Year for Free Program

Modern States, a New York-based organization, launched Freshman Year for Free so all types of students can access tuition-free online courses from its catalog.

This program is a good entry point for undocumented students to pursue higher education. Participating universities and professors instruct courses that qualify students to take CLEP exams and earn academic credits, which makes transfers a breeze! 💨

undocumented student searching for free freshman courses in Modern States program
Earn as many college credits as you can even if you can’t go to college yet because these will come in handy in the future. Photo: LinkedIn Sales Solutions/Unsplash

IT or Coding Bootcamps

Specialized courses and boot camps can give you accelerated learning opportunities for highly technical fields such as information technology, computer science, and more.

These types of training usually take only a few weeks to complete but you can earn certificates that can certainly help you out in the long run.

Trade Schools

Career or vocational schools are a popular alternative to the traditional four-year college education because they can lead you to high-paying job opportunities with significantly less debt.

Plus, it’s often easier to get accepted into a trade school compared to elite universities as test scores aren’t a requirement and there’s less competition.

female undocumented student learning how to be a mechanic in a trade school
Attending a trade school can be a more affordable path toward a bright future. Photo: Chevanon Photography/Pexels

READ MORE: College vs. Trade School: Which Choice Is Right for You?


We weren’t kidding when we said that it is an uphill battle for undocumented students who want to attend college in the US. But remember this: rising above these challenges gives you an edge over those who had it easy. 

No matter how tough being a non-US citizen is for your education, there are plenty of helping hands that want to see you succeed. 💯

A Guide to Going to College for DACA and Undocumented Students: Frequently Asked Questions

🤔 Can undocumented students attend college?

Yes. No federal laws prohibit non-legal students from postsecondary education in the US.

However, each state and institution are given the right to determine their own admissions and financial aid policies regarding DACA and undocumented learners.

Most colleges that allow undocumented students to apply impose non-resident rates, which are more expensive. But a handful of states consider them domestic students, including California, Kansas, New York, and Texas.

Some public and private colleges use domestic tuition rates for undocumented applicants, like the University of Hawaii, Cornell University, Northwestern University, and Amherst College.

Yes. Undocumented students can make the most out of private scholarships, grants, and loans; however, they are not eligible to receive federal financial aid. 

Plus, some colleges cover the entire demonstrated financial need of DACA and non-US citizen students.

Feature Image:Depositphotos

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