A Guide for Undocumented Students Applying to College
About 65,000 undocumented students — students born outside of the United States who are not U.S. citizens or legal residents — graduate from U.S. high schools each year. However, it’s estimated that only five to 10 percent of these students go on to college.
Factors contributing to this low percentage include systemic barriers, limited access to financial aid, and the misconception that college is not an option for undocumented students. In fact, undocumented students can attend U.S. universities. And if you’re an undocumented student hoping to attend college in the United States, there are plenty of resources available to help you navigate the journey.
In this guide, we’ll share important information on admission, tuition, and financial aid policies for undocumented students. Plus, we’ll give you helpful tips on applying to college in the United States.
Most importantly, you should know that there is no federal law against U.S. colleges accepting undocumented students. Laws do not require students to prove U.S. citizenship to enter U.S. universities. Very few states place limitations on undocumented students attending their public colleges and universities either.
Exceptions include Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia, where undocumented students cannot enroll in public universities. In Virginia, many state colleges will not accept students without documentation, but this is not a state law.
For the most part, colleges can make their own policies about admitting undocumented students. And the majority will not only welcome you, but will also provide resources and support to help you succeed.
Typically, U.S. students pay lower tuition rates for their home state’s public colleges and universities. In many states, however, undocumented students are charged out-of-state tuition fees. Whether you’ll pay in-state or out-of-state rates is up to the state laws of the state you live in.
The District of Columbia and at least twenty states have “tuition equity” laws or policies allowing students who have graduated from secondary schools in their state to pay in-state tuition regardless of immigration status. These states are:
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- Rhode Island
Generally, to be eligible for tuition equity, you must have attended a school in the state for a certain number of years. You must also have earned a high school diploma or a GED in the state.
Some individual universities, such as the University of Michigan, have adopted similar policies.
Financial Aid Policies
Legally, undocumented students can’t receive federally funded financial aid for college. This includes scholarships, grants, work study programs, or loans funded by the federal government.
In many states, you also won’t be eligible for state financial aid. But an increasing number of states offer state financial aid to undocumented students who meet certain criteria, including the District of Columbia and:
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
Like qualifying for in-state tuition, you’ll need to meet criteria such as attending school in the state for a certain number of years and earning your diploma or GED in the state.
California, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Utah allow public universities to provide private aid or scholarships to all students who graduate from their high schools or pay-in state tuition, regardless of immigration status.
Schools like the University of Hawaii offer financial aid to qualifying students without considering immigration status. In addition, private institutions set their own policies about providing aid to undocumented students, and some are willing to give you scholarships and grants.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) provides a list of scholarships that can go to any qualifying student, including those who are undocumented.
The college application process is essentially the same for all students. Most U.S. colleges require students to submit:
- Online application form (through the Common Application or the school’s individual application)
- High school transcripts
- SAT and/or ACT scores
- An essay or personal statement
- Letters of recommendation
- Application fee (Fee waivers are available if the fee presents a financial hardship for you.)
To be a competitive applicant, it’s important to take challenging classes in high school and perform well in them. College-level courses like Advanced Placement (AP) classes can be especially impressive. Your SAT or ACT scores are also important, and you should participate in sports or activities that you enjoy. When possible, take on leadership roles in student organizations or on sports teams.
When you fill out college applications, note that students with undocumented status should select the “No Selection” option for your Country of Citizenship. This will allow you to skip questions about permanent residency and visa status. It’s also recommended that you skip the Social Security Number question, which is optional.
Tips for Undocumented Students Applying to College
The idea of applying to college may feel intimidating, but the tips below will help guide you through the process.
1. Talk to your guidance counselor.
Your school’s guidance counselor is there to support you. Talk to your counselor about your options for applying to and paying for college. He or she can answer your questions and help you navigate the process. They may even be able to connect you with other undocumented students who have successfully enrolled in college.
By law, school officials like your counselors and teachers cannot share private information about their students, including your immigration status. Colleges are also not allowed to report a student’s immigration status without the student’s permission.
You’re not alone on the college application journey. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your counselor and/or to teachers that you trust.
2. Choose a university that’s right for you.
As you consider which universities to apply to, you may want to look for a school that will be supportive of your needs and wants. Check college websites and publications to see if they have student organizations, programs, or centers for first-generation immigrant students.
Other factors to consider include location, cost, size of the school, and whether the school has strong programs in the major or career that you’re interested in.
If you’re accepted to several schools, it’s a good idea to visit them as you make your final decision. Take a tour, talk to students, and imagine yourself living and learning there for the next four years.
3. Pay attention to deadlines.
Deadlines are extremely important when completing applications for colleges and scholarships. Keep a calendar with your deadlines listed, and give yourself plenty of time to complete all requirements.
For example, take the SAT, ACT, or both for the first time by your junior year. This will leave you enough time to retake the test if you aren’t satisfied with your first score.
Ask teachers for letters of recommendation at least two months before the deadline. It’s also a good idea to work on your essay/personal statement over the summer, before your time is occupied with school and homework.
Once you’re accepted to a school or schools, you have a few additional deadlines to meet. You’ll decline the offers you aren’t accepting. For the school you do want to attend, you’ll have to notify the school and send in a tuition deposit by the deadline, usually May 1.
4. Take advantage of available resources.
For more information and helpful resources, visit the following sites:
Final Thoughts: What Undocumented Immigrants Need To Know About College Admissions
Attending college in the United States is not out of reach for undocumented immigrants. That said, there are a few states in which public schools won’t admit you, you may not have access to in-state tuition, and your financial aid options are somewhat limited.
Still, there are plenty of resources available to help you. Many states and universities do offer in-state tuition, scholarships, or grants to students who are undocumented. A wide range of schools also have centers and organizations specifically designed to support first-generation immigrant students.
If you want to attend a U.S. university, don’t let your immigration status stop you. Know that help and information are available to you. Do your research, ask questions, and reach out to school officials for the support you need.
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