Are you worried that if you're undocumented (i.e., born outside the United States and not a U.S. citizen or legal resident) you can't go to college? Think again.
Undocumented and mixed status children can enroll in public schools in the U.S. from kindergarten through 12th grade. This is protected by federal law and was affirmed by the Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe in 1982. However, accessing higher education can be more complicated for undocumented students, depending on state laws and regulations.
If you're a high school student who's undocumented, you probably have a lot of questions about going to college. Get the facts and learn how to make it happen. Here are some important facts to know.
1. You Can Go to College
First, you should know that no federal law prevents U.S. colleges from admitting undocumented students. A few states have restricted these students from attending public colleges and universities. However, in most cases, colleges set their own rules on admitting undocumented students. Research the policies of colleges you’re interested in attending.
You should also know that undocumented students can’t receive federal financial aid for college─the type of aid that many college students rely on. However, undocumented students can get financial assistance or scholarships for college in other ways. To find out more, read Undocumented Students: Questions and Answers About Paying for College.
Your undocumented status might limit your choices, but college is still an option if you have a plan. Your best strategy is to start planning early, do a lot of research, and ask plenty of questions.
2. You're Not Alone
You'll have to put in the work it takes to get to college. Building a support network is key.
Start with your family. Make sure they know you want to go to college. Talk with them about your options for choosing a college and paying for your education.
You can also seek advice from trusted teachers and counselors at your high school. Along with guiding you, they might be able to put you in touch with other undocumented students who have successfully enrolled in college or with college admissions counselors who can help you.
If you're worried about telling teachers and counselors that you're undocumented, be aware that, by law, school officials can’t disclose personal information about students─including their immigration status.
3. You Can Find a College That Fits You
As you look for colleges that match your wants and needs, you should find out if the colleges you're interested in have programs, student organizations, or centers that support first-generation undocumented and mixed status students. Checking out college websites and publications is a good place to start.
Here are some things to remember when looking at colleges:
- Different colleges have different policies on admitting undocumented students.
- Different colleges have different policies on awarding nonfederal financial aid to undocumented students. Read For Undocumented Students: Questions and Answers About Paying for College for more information.
- Public colleges must follow their state’s laws on issues such as whether undocumented students who live in the state can pay in-state tuition or must pay out-of-state tuition. Download the Repository of Resources for Undocumented Students (.pdf/1MB) to see information and resources for several states.
4. You’ll Apply Like Any Other Student
The college application process is usually the same for all students. You'll need to find out the colleges' admission requirements regarding testing, grades, and the high school classes you need to take. You may be asked to write a personal essay and get letters of recommendation, among other application requirements.
Learn more by reading Quick Guide: The Anatomy of the College Application.
The best way for any student to prepare for college is to work hard in high school. Colleges look at your grades and the kinds of classes you take, so it's a great idea to take college-level courses, such as Advanced Placement® classes. Many colleges award credit based on scores on AP Exams, which can save students money on tuition.
5. Your Options May Change
Laws and regulations regarding undocumented students change. It’s important to keep up with the news about how these changes may affect your college plans.
6. You Can Find Resources to Help You
Here are some additional websites with helpful information:
What’s an undocumented student?
The term "undocumented student" refers to a student who lives in the country but doesn’t have documentation for legal residency in the United States. Undocumented status may result from various circumstances, including entering the country without authorization, overstaying a visa, or being brought to the country as a child by undocumented
Can undocumented students go to college?
Yes. In the United States, undocumented students can attend college, but they may face financial and legal barriers. Undocumented students aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, including grants and loans. However, some states have implemented policies that allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition rates or offer state-funded financial aid programs. Additionally, some private scholarships and institutional aid opportunities are designated for undocumented students.
What states accept undocumented students?
Several states in the United States have implemented policies supporting undocumented students in accessing higher education. These examples include California's Dream Act, New York’s Dream Act, Texas’s Dream Act, and Illinois’s Dream Act. Because requirements and opportunities can vary, undocumented students should stay updated and research their options. Additionally, some private institutions may have their own policies and scholarships for undocumented students. Exploring those options is also worthwhile.
How can an undocumented student become legal?
Legalizing the status of undocumented individuals is a complex process. Potential pathways include asylum, family sponsorship, employment-based immigration, special programs, and deferred action. Any undocumented student will want to seek legal advice to determine the best option for their individual circumstances.
What resources are available to undocumented students pursuing higher education?
Many organizations and nonprofits offer college access programs tailored specifically to undocumented students. Such programs provide guidance on college exploration, admissions, financial aid, and scholarship opportunities. Additionally, many colleges and universities often have dedicated offices or staff members who specialize in supporting undocumented students with admissions policies, financial aid options, scholarships, and campus resources. Finally, undocumented students can seek assistance from immigration attorneys or accredited immigration organizations for legal guidance on their immigration status, potential pathways to legalization, and understanding of their rights.