The Path to Higher Education

Undocumented students may incorrectly assume that they cannot legally attend college in the United States. However, there is no federal law that prohibits the admission of undocumented immigrants to U.S. colleges, public or private.

If you’re a top-performer who is afraid your citizenship status is the only thing standing in the way of a college education, here’s what you need to know:

The Hurdles You’ll Face

Admission

FACT: Federal or state laws do not require students to prove citizenship in order to enter U.S. institutions of higher education. However, a few states, including Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, do ban public universities from accepting undocumented students. Private schools have no such ban in any of these states.

TIP: Go online and research specific colleges and universities to find out whether their admissions process requires applicants to submit proof of citizenship or legal residency. You may be surprised to find that many colleges and universities do not discriminate against undocumented students.

Tuition

FACT: In many states, public institutions accept undocumented students but treat them as foreign students.

TIP: What does that mean to you? You’ll likely not be eligible for state aid and in-state tuition, which means you may be on the hook for around $20,000 to attend school for just one year. Luckily, scholarships exist to help cover a cost that would otherwise be out of reach to many students.

Financial Aid

FACT: Undocumented students cannot legally receive any federally funded student financial aid, including loans, grants, scholarships or work-study money.

TIP: Some states do grant eligibility for state financial aid to undocumented students. This is subject to change, so ask a teacher, guidance counselor or search online for specifics on your in-state school system. Additionally, private institutions set their own financial aid policies. Some are willing to give scholarships and other aid to undocumented students.

Recent Developments

State Progress

In July 2011, the state of California enacted the California DREAM Act. This gives immigrant students access to private college scholarships for state schools.

In August 2011, the state of Illinois authorized a privately funded scholarship plan for children of immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

National Progress

The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act: This pending legislation aims to help undocumented students have a clear path to permanent legal status. To be eligible, students will have come to the U.S. at the age of 15 or younger and graduate from a U.S. high school. Eligible students would have a six-year period to graduate from a community college, complete at least two years toward a four-year degree or serve at least two years in the U.S. military. These individuals would qualify for in-state tuition in all states during the six-year period.

How to Succeed in Today's System

Once you’ve identified colleges and universities you’d like to apply to, the real work begins. Sit down with your guidance counselor to discuss scheduling standardized testing and getting your recommendations and essays together. And don’t worry, telling a teacher or counselor that you are undocumented will not prevent you from graduating or moving forward with your education.

Then begin searching for scholarships — both local and federal — that may help you. Start this step as early as possible. You’ll need to contact organizations individually for eligibility requirements.

Additional Resources

Scholarships

Your Rights

Paying for Exams/Application Fees

And of course, spread the word. Change only happens if you make it.