Accessing the American Dream: Pursuing College as an Undocumented Student

Discover how to make higher education a reality as an undocumented student from tackling roadblocks and finding affordable housing to educating yourself on the laws and policies that matter to you.

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Last Updated: 01/05/2022
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For undocumented young people, gaining access to higher education means overcoming the bureaucratic roadblocks set up by a seemingly cold system. Even in the face of overwhelming public and bipartisan support, enacting legislation to codify the rights of young people living in the United States illegally remains stunted. As a result, many young people are left without the resources needed to pursue higher education.

Although donning the cap and gown may seem impossible sometimes, undocumented students can surmount the hurdles they face on the road to a college degree. From college preparation programs and financial aid to affordable housing and social security services, there’s no shortage of paths available to students without documentation. Find out how you can make your education and career dreams a reality with actional advice and effective strategies.

Undocumented Students & College: Facts & Stats

The facts and statistics don’t lie: undocumented students face serious barriers that often prevent access to a high school diploma and a college degree. For students privileged with American citizenship or permanent legal status, education traditionally offers expanded access to career options and earning potential. The statistics below underscore the struggles that undocumented students face.

  • More than 450,000 undocumented students are currently enrolled in higher education programs.
  • Over 1.2 million undocumented immigrants are of traditional college-going age (18-24).
  • Less than 14.7% of undocumented immigrants held a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2015.
  • Of the roughly 80,000 undocumented immigrants that turn 18 every year, only 16-60% will graduate.
  • Of the 50,000 to 60,000 undocumented students who graduate every year, the majority don’t even apply to college.

Roadblocks & Access Paths to Higher Education for Undocumented Students

Under the best circumstances, applying for, enrolling in, and funding all things college-related can be taxing. For undocumented students, even more hurdles and stressors exist. In the following section, we highlight some of the roadblocks that undocumented learners encounter and offer solutions and resources. Keep reading to learn more.

Roadblock: Lack of Support from High Schools

While many colleges offer vital resources for undocumented students, high schools often do not have the resources, time, or experience required to address the issues specific to undocumented students. In the following section, we look at resources for undocumented high school students planning on attending college.

Access Paths

Faith Community

For undocumented high school students interested in pursuing a college degree, their faith community can act as an invaluable resource for guidance and support when attempting to navigate the roadblocks set up by their undocumented status. Reaching out to individuals with experience in higher education and community members who addressed these issues in the past can mitigate some of the shortfalls of inadequate high school counseling. Additionally, it is not uncommon for faith communities to help raise money to cover tuition costs.

College Admission Counseling

When high schools fail to offer the resources or experience to navigate the complicated world of college admissions for undocumented students, reaching out directly to college admission counselors can supply helpful information directly from the source. Many admission counselors are familiar with handling sensitive issues involving undocumented learners, and they’ll often have practical tips to deal with the struggles facing these applicants.

Afterschool Groups

Afterschool groups, like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, can offer undocumented students mentoring, community, and a safe place to pursue academic goals. Additionally, these groups rely on a network of philanthropically-minded individuals to address the needs of underserved communities. Not only do these groups help guide undocumented students through high school, but also prepare them with various life skills needed for future success.

Higher Tuition Cost

Even though many states have instituted tuition equity programs to benefit undocumented learners, these students often lack access to traditional resources like federal student loans and work-study programs. Additionally, some states refuse to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students. Continue reading as we highlight ways undocumented students can offset the cost of their education.

Access Paths

States with Tuition Equity Laws

For undocumented students, some locations across the country have passed tuition equity laws that allow undocumented residents to receive in-state tuition rates after graduating from a high school within the state. Over 20 states have passed tuition equity measures, including Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, and New Jersey. Take time to see if your state has a tuition equity policy.

National Immigrant Law Center: The National Immigrant Law Center offers a clear guide to the facts surrounding in-state tuition for undocumented students. In addition to compiling a list of participating states, this page also highlights states that provide state-funded financial aid opportunities for undocumented learners.

Tuition Benefits for Immigrants: This page compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures not only spotlights the states offering in-state tuition for undocumented students, but also lays out the legislation passed by each state and clearly summarizes the intricacies of each law.

United We Dream: Provided by the advocacy group United We Dream, this page offers a substantive and accessible United States map that’s color-coded to indicate each particular state’s policies related to tuition and state aid for undocumented students. While these laws are subject to change, this is a practical introduction to the rules and regulations across the United States.

Higher Ed Immigration Portal: This page is a one-stop shop for various state and federal policies, resources, and data regarding undocumented, immigrant, and international students. Topics covered include funding opportunities for undocumented students, educational pathways for refugee students, and state-by-state data and policies.

Access to Affordable Housing

Without access to the traditional loans afforded to non-DACA students, access to affordable housing can act as a serious obstacle to earning a degree. Still, undocumented students can access affordable housing options through various resources and search options. Keep reading to learn more.

Access Paths

Roommates

A common choice for most students, finding off-campus housing with a group of friends is a practical way to secure an affordable place to live. While this may prove challenging for some adult students, having roommates opens up housing options that wouldn’t be financially viable otherwise.

Uloop: This site acts as a marketplace for finding roommates and housing. With over 3,500 current roommate listing requests, students can often access affordable housing options. Additionally, this site includes college sublets, student travel, and various academic resources.

School Resources

Depending on the school you attend, many colleges and universities offer various resources for undocumented students searching for affordable housing. UC Berkeley directs students to affordable housing through the city’s rent stabilization program, student co-ops, and the Casa Joaquin Multiethnic Residential Leadership Academy. Reach out to your school’s housing administrators to inquire about options for undocumented learners.

Access to Federal Financial Aid

Similar to the risk of paying inflated tuition rates, undocumented students do not have access to federal financial aid and loans that typically boast lower interest rates than private loans. Undocumented students may have to get creative to address this roadblock, but options do exist. Continue reading as we spotlight ways to address the lack of access to federal financial aid.

Access Paths

State Aid

In addition to the many states that offer in-state tuition to local undocumented students, a growing number of states offer financial aid opportunities to students, regardless of their immigration status. The National Immigration Law Center provides information on states that currently provide financial assistance to undocumented students.

Scholarships

Scholarships offer undocumented students a clear path to offset the cost of tuition. Coming from various sources, including private, state, or institutional, these awards typically require applicants to submit academic transcripts, a resume outlining professional and volunteer activities, and essays. Additionally, some scholarships require applicants to prove financial need.

My Undocumented Life: My Undocumented Life sets out to supply current news, information, and resources to undocumented students and their families. Additionally, this site posts various scholarship opportunities along with personal accounts of navigating higher education as an undocumented student. This is also a practical resource for information regarding DACA applications and immigration news.

Immigrants Rising Scholarships: Immigrants Rising plays home to countless resources for undocumented students, their families, and allies. This group’s scholarship resources page covers the ins and outs of the application process, how to build a stand-out scholarship essay, and a comprehensive list of graduate and undergraduate scholarships.

Work Authorization

While DACA students have access to employment authorization, current legal issues prevent the approval of new DACA recipients. As a result, undocumented students may not have access to the jobs needed to pay for tuition and housing. Additionally, this can lead to individuals tackling taxing jobs with inadequate pay. We address this issue in the section below.

Access Paths

Freelance Work

While the DACA approval process is stalled, securing work authorization is nearly impossible. That said, tackling freelance work allows you to work without federal approval. From freelance writing to tech support, these positions can offer valuable income while earning your degree. That said, you’ll still need to pay taxes. Individuals working without a social security number must request an individual taxpayer ID number (ITIN) by completing form W-7.

Under the Table

Similar to freelance work, tackling under the table work in various settings can allow you to make some money while completing academic requirements. As the IRS requires tax filings for income exceeding $10,000. While not glamorous, these jobs include babysitting, house sitting, cleaning jobs, pet care, graphic design, tutoring, snow removal, and driving for rideshare companies. Like freelance work, you’ll need to pay taxes if earning more than $10,000.

Lack of Social Security Number

With DACA approval and work authorization comes a Social Security number. But as that option is currently not available for new undocumented students, applying to college without a social security number can present various challenges. This is yet another common hurdle for undocumented students.

Access Paths

In ~250 words, list 3-5 strategies, resources, organizations, etc. that can help undocumented students through this roadblock. For each access path you list, provide a short description of how an undocumented student can benefit from or use it as a means to get around this challenge. If you are listing an organization, resource, or something similar, please link to eh appropriate site.

Increased Mental Health Risk

It’s an unfortunate reality that undocumented students are left reeling while compassionate immigration policies face constant challenges. As a result, the accompanying stress, isolation, and fear can lead to serious mental health challenges. In the following section, we highlight some tips to address the mental health issues faced by undocumented students.

Access Paths

Understand Your Rights

Due to the instability that DACA recipients face, owning a nuanced understanding of your legal rights can alleviate the stress of unpredictable immigration law. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offer up-to-date news regarding DACA on the legal front. Additionally, the Immigration Legal Resource Center is an invaluable resource for DACA recipients.

Find a Community

For many, finding a community of individuals with shared experiences can help build friendships, emotional support, and connection with other DACA students. Additionally, student organizations can foster a sense of community, whether dedicated to activism or intramural sports. Reach out and get connected.

Speak on It

Sometimes, the best medicine for addressing mental health issues is simply talking to someone in an atmosphere devoid of judgment and bolstered by a sense of care and compassion. At the best colleges and universities, mental health counseling services abound. In addition to traditional counseling and therapy, support groups are also a great place to speak openly while engaging with individuals with shared experiences.

Give Back

Nothing enriches the self quite like helping others. In addition to lending a hand to other DACA students, consider finding organizations within your community that can benefit from volunteer workers. As an added bonus to helping yourself while helping others, volunteer work doesn’t look bad on a resume.

5 Tips for Choosing Your College as an Undocumented Student

While undocumented students may face some unfortunate roadblocks to higher education, finding the right school is easier if you know where to look. In the upcoming section, we review a handful of tips that can assist the undocumented student in their school search.

Tip 1

Look for schools with centers for undocumented students

When searching for schools friendly to undocumented students, do some research to see if prospective institutions have centers for undocumented students. Additionally, many schools offer various resources for undocumented students, including scholarships, housing initiatives, and work opportunities. Student-led organizations are also an excellent place for students wanting to find a welcoming community.

Tip 2

Pick colleges that treat undocumented students as domestic, not international

While many colleges treat undocumented students similarly to domestic students, other institutions may lump them in with international applicants. This can complicate the admission process and act as a serious roadblock when trying to mitigate tuition costs. Additionally, undocumented students who would otherwise pay in-state tuition can face significantly higher tuition rates if a school doesn’t have policies in place to address this issue.

Tip 3

Pay attention to the community and the campus

The community on and around campus can shed serious light on how well an undocumented student will transition into college life at a particular college or university. In addition to finding a school that boasts institutional support for undocumented students, take a closer look and see if student groups and organizations exist for DACA students. Unfortunately, some schools take an almost antagonistic stance toward undocumented students. Schools with seemingly draconian English language requirements are a red flag.

Tip 4

Search for schools that offer institutional aid

Until some laws change, undocumented students will continue to struggle with a lack of access to many governmental sources of financial aid. As a result, institutional support for DACA students becomes a valuable resource when available. When searching for schools, be sure to single out institutions that offer financial aid, scholarships, and grants explicitly earmarked for undocumented learners.

Tip 5

Considering starting out at a community college

For many students, community college acts as a practical way to earn college credit while simultaneously saving money. In addition to significantly lower tuition rates than four-year institutions, many community college students maintain jobs while attending class. This is an excellent opportunity to save some money in anticipation of those steeper tuition bills from a four-year school.

Policies & Laws Protecting Undocumented Students

From the initial DREAM Act in 2001 to today, the laws pertaining to undocumented students on both the state and federal levels have evolved. In the following section, we take a close look at DREAMER laws and what they can mean for you.

DREAMER Laws

Whether on the state or federal level, DREAMER laws and policies are put in place to ensure that children brought to the United States illegally can obtain benefits similar to legal immigrants contingent upon various administrative rules. As a result, knowing the history and details regarding these policies can offer a clearer view of potential obstacles when searching for the right college or university.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act—2001

While crafted in a bipartisan fashion and considered multiple times since 2001, the United States Congress has yet to pass legislation protecting the interests of children brought to this country illegally. The original DREAM Act was proposed in 2001 and sought to provide conditional legal residency for undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children under the age of 16.

In its original form, the DREAM Act would have ensured access to higher education for undocumented students, requiring that these young people graduate from community college, finish two years of a four-year degree, and/or serve two years in the U.S. military. And while these students couldn’t receive Pell grants, they would have access to various financial aid options like federal work-study programs and loans.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—2012

In 2012, after over ten years of congressional foot-dragging and legislative punting, President Obama issued an executive order: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This policy allows undocumented individuals brought to the United States as children the opportunity to apply for a renewable authorization to legally remain in the United States without the threat of deportation.

In short, the DACA policy allows these undocumented young people access to essential documents like social security cards and work authorization. Additionally, DACA implemented some of the vital elements of the DREAM Act. As a result, significant barriers to higher education were removed.

And while this shift offered a temporary reprieve from administrative hurdles, executive orders lack the permanence of legislation. As a result, executive actions can easily be reversed by future administrations.

DACA Changes in the Trump Administration and After

The problem with an executive order such as DACA is that it’s left vulnerable to the whims of a shifting political landscape. Enter President Donald J. Trump. Trump made his intention to rescind DACA clear during the campaign, and shortly after taking office, attempted just that. Leaving hundreds of thousands of DACA students vulnerable, the administration stopped processing applications in 2017.

Thankfully for the nearly 700,000 Dreamers, in June 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration’s recission fell short of administrative procedures, placing an undue burden on those benefiting from a long-standing policy. While this ruling didn’t assess the constitutionality of DACA itself, its recipients could breathe a temporary sigh of relief.

The law surrounding DACA shifted again in the summer of 2021. In June, a federal judge in Texas effectively ruled the DACA program unconstitutional. And while the ruling explicitly states that current recipients should continue receiving benefits until further judicial review, the Department of Homeland security cannot approve new DACA applications.

For now, current Dreamers have access to the benefits afforded by the initial DACA policy.

And while the 2020 Supreme Court ruling, combined with the installation of a DACA-friendly Biden administration in 2021, offers a reprieve for DACA recipients, this policy will continue to exist on shaky ground until some version of the DREAM Act becomes law.

State Dreamer Laws

While DACA continues to exist as a political football, some states actively support undocumented students. At the moment, some twenty states have enacted policies and laws that offer Dreamers in-state tuition rates, regardless of immigration status. Additionally, multiple states, including California, Texas, and Maryland, offer access to state financial aid for Dreamers.

And while some states take an active role in supporting undocumented students, several states boast laws that ban enrollment to undocumented students. Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina all enacted policies denying enrollment to undocumented students.

When reviewing potential colleges and universities, look closely at state laws as some are more open to undocumented students. Additionally, prospective students may find a more welcoming environment if a state plays home to tuition equity laws and favorable financial aid policies.

Additional Student Resources

Big Future

Provided by the College Board, this site publishes various content crafted specifically for undocumented students. In addition to publishing helpful information for DACA students, they also include personal stories of DACA students, admission counselors, and administrators.

Citizen Path

This DACA resource provides students with an exhaustive guide to the DACA program. Essential elements include a clear map outlining paths to legal status, various frequently asked questions, and practical guidelines for completing DACA applications.

The Dream

TheDream.US is a community of partners that expand academic opportunities for top-performing undocumented students. While advocating for educational equity, this group offers various generous scholarships for DACA students.

Immigrant Legal Resource Center

Recognizing the complex web of social and legal challenges faced by immigrants, this group strives to improve immigration policy and law. They also offer a handy resource for individuals completing the DACA application.

Immigrants Rising

This group helps undocumented students achieve academic and career goals through policy action while boasting an inclusive and diverse community. This group assists with immigration legal issues and provides resources for mental health and wellness, career assistance, and college admissions.

Life After College

Marquette University compiled this handy guide for undocumented graduates entering the workforce or applying to graduate schools. Included topics include the application process, applying to internships, and legal remedies to immigration issues.

Repository of Resources for Undocumented Students

Compiled by the College Board, this valuable resource tackles educational hurdles faced by undocumented students through an exhaustive state-by-state guide. This guide also includes admission and financial aid information as well as information regarding student support organizations.

United We Dream

Rooted in the education justice movement, United We Dream’s Education Equity Program offers various resources to address opportunity gaps and spearheads local initiatives to enhance equity in education.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Part of the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services provides official information regarding DACA and other immigration policies. This is an excellent resource for keeping up with legal issues involving DACA.