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Can Undocumented Immigrants Go to College?


During my undergraduate years at Stanford and in my first job after graduation, I counseled a number of undocumented high school students. Many undocumented students incorrectly assume that they’re not allowed to go to college. While there are additional barriers that make pursuing a college education more difficult, I’m proud to say that I know multiple undocumented immigrants who are now graduates from prestigious universities.

In this article, I’ll detail the rules and obstacles for undocumented students who pursue higher education.


College Admission Policies for Undocumented Immigrants

There is no federal law that prohibits the admission of undocumented immigrants to either public or private US colleges. However, institutional policies can vary, and some states have placed restrictions on undocumented students from attending in-state postsecondary institutions.

The Georgia Board of Regents banned undocumented students from attending the top 5 state-funded colleges in Georgia. Also, Alabama and South Carolina prohibit undocumented students from enrolling at any public postsecondary institution.

Despite these prohibitions, the majority of US colleges remain open to undocumented students.

Many colleges are becoming increasingly vocal and open about their support for undocumented immigrant students. This year, Rutgers University-Newark held a college admissions fair for undocumented students.

Furthermore, top colleges like Stanford, Dartmouth, Duke, and the University of Chicago have stated that they welcome the applications of undocumented students and have undocumented students enrolled.



Regardless of citizenship status, you can be a college grad!


However, even though undocumented immigrants can be admitted to most of the nation's colleges, financial obstacles make attending much more difficult.


Financial Issues for Undocumented Immigrants

Undoubtedly, the biggest hurdles for undocumented students going to college are financial.


Federal Aid

Undocumented students can't legally receive any federally funded aid, including loans, grants, scholarships, or work-study money. Most students who need financial assistance to attend college fill out a FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and are given federal grants and loans based on their expected family contribution. Undocumented students do not have this option because they're ineligible for all forms of federal aid.


State Aid and In-State Tuition

Many states treat undocumented students like foreign students. In these states, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for state aid and the lower in-state tuition charged to residents at state institutions.

Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana specifically prohibit in-state tuition rates for undocumented students.


States That Offer In-State Tuition

Some states, though, have passed laws that enable undocumented students to pay in-state tuition if they meet certain conditions, and trends seem to indicate that more states will offer in-state tuition to undocumented students in the future.

Currently, 16 states have laws allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition provided they meet certain requirements: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington.

For example, California has a state law known as AB 540. Undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition if they attend a California high school for 3 years, graduate from a California high school, and fill out an affidavit that says they will apply for US residency as soon as possible.

Additionally, Oklahoma and Rhode Island allow in-state tuition rates for undocumented students through Board of Regents' decisions.

And, in 2013, the University of Hawaii's and the University of Michigan's Board of Regents adopted policies for undocumented students to have access to in-state tuition at those colleges.


States That Give Aid

Presently, California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington allow undocumented students to receive state aid.


Private Scholarships

Most private scholarships require applicants to be US citizens or legal residents. However, there are some scholarships that are open to undocumented immigrants and an increasing number of scholarships are specifically for undocumented students.

For more information regarding private scholarships for undocumented students, check out:

Golden Door Scholars


MALDEF Scholarship Resources


Becas Univision Scholarship

Furthermore, you can review this scholarship guide for undocumented students.

In addition to these scholarships, some private colleges, including NYU, grant scholarships or other aid to undocumented students.




How to Address Your Citizenship on Your Application

If you're an undocumented student, don't lie or misrepresent your citizenship status on your application. Leave your social security number blank. Don't put in an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, Alien number, or any other number.

For the University of California, undocumented students should select "No Selection" for their country of citizenship.

In your application essay, absolutely, feel free to address your immigration status and situation. Colleges want to hear about obstacles that you've had to overcome, but don't let those obstacles define you. The purpose of the application essay is for the school to get to know you and get a better sense of how you could possibly contribute to the college's community.

Focus on your accomplishments and what makes you unique as an individual.

The Federal Education and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of student records at all educational institutions. Whatever you write in your essay or talk about with admissions or financial aid counselors will not be reported.


Additional Advice for Undocumented Immigrants

State and federal laws change all the time, especially since immigration is such a politically charged issue. Educate yourself about current state and federal laws regarding tuition and aid rules for undocumented students.

The two federal laws you should be aware of are DACA and the DREAM Act. If you are DACA eligible, you can get a work permit and be freed from the fear of deportation for at least 2 years. Unfortunately, you still won't be eligible for federal financial aid.

The DREAM Act has not been passed and has undergone numerous changes since it was first proposed in 2001. However, if it ever passes, it could have a profound impact on higher education access for undocumented students. Also, if it does pass, you'll be on a path to citizenship if you attend college.

If you have a good relationship with your counselor, talk with him or her about your options and get guidance. Remember, though, you do not have to reveal your immigration status or your parents' to any school personnel, and they can't ask you about it.

Make yourself competitive for college admission. Get good grades, take college prep classes, do well on your standardized tests, and try to participate in extracurricular activities. Because your immigration status may limit your options, you should do what you can to give yourself the most opportunities. Additionally, some of the scholarships that you're eligible for are more likely to go to high achieving students.

Contact admissions officers and financial aid counselors at the schools you're interested in attending. Typically, they'll try to be helpful and they won't report your immigration status. They can inform you of their financial aid options for undocumented students and let you know how to fill out the school's application, specifically in regards to questions about citizenship and residency.

Do research on colleges that offer support for undocumented students. For example, UCLA and UC Berkeley have support programs that provide services and advice for undocumented students.

Finally, look at the Repository of Resources For Undocumented Students. It has information about state laws. Also, it has information about scholarships you may be eligible for and organizations that can offer you support and advice.

While you may have more hurdles to overcome, graduating from college is possible and will likely give you a better life and future.




What's Next?

If you're an undocumented student, there may be additional factors to consider, but you should review this post on how to choose a college. Also, you'll want to know the best college search websites.

Lastly, if you're wondering how to make yourself as competitive for college admission as possible, read this article on building the most versatile college application.



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Justin Berkman
About the Author

Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.

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