College Guide for Undocumented Students

An undocumented immigrant is defined as any foreign-born person who does not have a legal right to remain in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants reside in the U.S. as of 2016, representing 3.4% of the country's total population. Undocumented students are a subset of this group and face various hardships due to their legal status, including obstacles that prevent them from receiving the same educational opportunities as U.S. citizens and legal U.S. residents.

Since 2012, roughly 790,000 undocumented immigrants have received deportation relief under the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives undocumented minors the opportunity to work and study in the United States DACA recipients, particularly those seeking higher educational opportunities, are considered Dreamers, a term stemming from the proposed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act of 2001. This act would have streamlined the process for undocumented minors to receive conditional ― and eventually, permanent ― residency.

While the DREAM Act has repeatedly failed to pass in Congress, the push for Dreamers to receive the same educational and work opportunities as U.S. citizens remains a hot-button issue in today's uncertain political climate. A survey from College Board found that, of the 65,000 undocumented students that graduate from high school every year in the U.S., only 5% to 10% enroll in college. This article includes some strategies for undocumented students when it comes to overcoming these educational barriers, obtaining financial aid, and earning a college degree.

Population of Undocumented Immigrants by State
State Population of Undocumented Immigrants Percentage
California 2,820,000 25%
Texas 1,830,000 16%
Florida 730,000 6%
New York 580,000 5%
Illinois 540,000 5%
New Jersey 430,000 4%
Georgia 400,000 3%
North Carolina 360,000 3%
Arizona 350,000 3%
Washington 270,000 2%
Other 3,110,000 28%


Higher Education Opportunities for Undocumented Students

Most undocumented students have access to public K-12 (elementary and secondary) education. However, attending a college or university can be a difficult undertaking for these individuals. A primary reason is affordability: As noted by Inside Higher Ed, undocumented immigrants are considered ineligible for any form of federal financial aid, including fixed-interest federal student loans and Pell Grants.

In addition, these students face educational challenges due to state-specific laws. Only six states have enacted educational equity laws that provide state financial aid for undocumented students: California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Texas. Another 10 states have educational equity laws for undocumented students, but no state financial aid. Other states have taken a different approach. Alabama and South Carolina, for instance, prohibit undocumented immigrants from enrolling at any degree-granting institution. Despite these state-by-state differences, there are many opportunities for undocumented students to take college courses at accredited institutions, earn degrees, and follow their professional dreams.


Created through Title V of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) program provides federal funding for colleges and universities with predominantly Hispanic student populations. An HSI is defined as any degree-granting institution that serves primarily low-income students and has a student body with at least 25% of students identifying as Hispanic. In addition, eligible Hispanic-serving institutions cannot be for-profit, must receive official accreditation, and must offer two-year associate degree programs or higher. The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) currently identifies 472 HSIs nationwide; these institutions represent 13.8% of all not-for-profit schools and enroll 62.3% of all Hispanic students in the country.

Applying for College

Applying for college can be a daunting task for any aspiring student, but this process can be particularly challenging for DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants. Although there are no federal laws that require proof of citizenship for admission to U.S. colleges, several states have enacted measures that grant schools the right to screen for undocumented applicants ― and bar them from attending if they wish. This next section will explore some strategies for undocumented college applicants.


The vast majority of college applications include personal essays or writing prompts that allow prospective students to describe a particular achievement or experience. For undocumented applicants, these written assignments can be a great opportunity to detail the challenges they have overcome relating to their immigrant status. College applications may also ask about academic interests, extracurricular activities, or volunteer projects, which are all ways of demonstrating involvement within a broader immigrant community. Here are a few tips for crafting an effective personal essay:

  • Sell yourself: Writing prompts give applicants the chance to shine. Without bragging, use this section of the application to describe all of the ways you have been involved in the undocumented immigrant community.
  • Stay positive: Rather than dwelling on unpleasant experiences, take the time to emphasize how you plan to aid and advocate for undocumented populations once you have completed your education.
  • Don't forget to edit: Admissions officers thoroughly check college applications for typos, misspelled words, and grammatical errors. A good rule-of-thumb is to write and edit all drafts by hand, or to read your essay aloud, until you have a polished final version. For non-electronic applications, be sure to use clear, easy-to-read handwriting.


The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is designed to safeguard all student educational records, including information about immigration status. All colleges and universities receiving financial support from the U.S. Department of Education must abide by this law. As part of FERPA, school officials must obtain expressed consent from eligible students or their parents to release information from the student's record except under certain circumstances, such as when the school is complying with a judicial order, state-issued subpoena, or requests from state or local juvenile justice authorities.

Even though student privacy is protected by FERPA, schools are allowed to release directory information about students without notice, provided the student or the student's parents are aware of what this information includes. Directory information is defined as "information contained in a student's education record that generally would not be considered harmful or an invasion of privacy if disclosed," and includes name, date and place of birth, contact information, and previous schools attended.


Many U.S. colleges and universities will only admit non-English speakers after they have taken an English language entrance exam. These exams typically include reading, writing, speaking, and hearing comprehension components. In most cases, English language entrance exams are not graded on a pass-or-fail scale; rather, the student's final score indicates how much supplemental language training (if any) is needed before he or she can begin their general degree coursework. Two exams are most frequently offered in the U.S.: the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

Understanding Your Rights in Uncertain Times

In 2012, President Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, often referred to as DACA, to safeguard undocumented students' presence in the United States. Under DACA, qualifying undocumented students are protected from deportation without legal cause for two years from their date of enrollment. DACA also provides work authorization to enrollees; however, the program does not provide a path to legal status as a U.S. citizen. Since DACA's inception, almost 800,000 undocumented students have benefited from its protections and work permits.

In September of 2017, President Trump announced plans to phase out DACA over a six-month period. As it stands, the federal government no longer accepts new applications for the program. While the nearly 700,000 undocumented students who are currently enrolled in DACA will retain their protections for the remainder of their two-year deferral period, they will not be allowed to apply for renewal after October 5.

The future of current DACA enrollees is uncertain.

The future of current DACA enrollees is uncertain. Although they're still able to attend public colleges and universities in the majority of states, they may struggle to cover the cost of their education. Undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid, and often work while attending school to help pay for tuition and other expenses. However, when their work permits expire at the end of their two-year deferral period, employers will have no choice but to lay them off. President Trump has encouraged Congress to pass legislation to protect DACA enrollees by granting them legal citizenship before March of 2019, when the six-month phase-out is complete. However, the likelihood of such legislation is unclear.

To stay up to date on DACA and the impacts of the ongoing phase-out, visit the DACA page of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Additionally, check out My Undocumented Life, a blog that offers resources and news updates for undocumented immigrants.

Financial Aid for Undocumented Students

Obtaining financial aid can be tricky for undocumented immigrants who wish to attend college because they do not qualify for federal loans, grants, or scholarships. However, these students may be eligible for state financial aid, as well as scholarships or grants offered by universities, nonprofit organizations, and private institutions. This next section will explore strategies that undocumented students can use for finding and receiving financial support for college.


All incoming college students ― including undocumented individuals ― are encouraged to complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form is used to evaluate the financial needs of applicants based factors like their individual and family's household income, employment and tax history, and academic and career goals. The application is available in paper, online, and PDF formats.

A Social Security number (SSN) is required from all applicants. Most DACA recipients are given an SSN, but other undocumented immigrants do not qualify for one. For undocumented students who do not have an SSN, the U.S. Department of Education urges them to meet with a school counselor to discuss financial aid options. In some cases, these students will be able to apply for and receive financial aid without submitting the FAFSA.

When prompted on the FAFSA form to answer whether they are U.S. citizens, DACA students with an SSN should mark the box that reads: "No, I am not a citizen or eligible noncitizen." Two additional questions will inquire about the legal state of residence of both the applicant and his or her parents along with the tax history of the applicant and his or her parents. If applicants and/or their parents have filed taxes with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), then the requested information may be accessed using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool found on the FAFSA website. For taxes not filed with the IRS, applicants can input this information manually.


Historically, state taxpayer monies have been used in part to support public colleges and universities. As a result, many schools have offered in-state students lower tuition rates than out-of-state students. The difference between these two rates is substantial. College Board estimates that the average in-state student paid $9,650 in tuition at a public institution in 2016–17, while the average out-of-state student paid $24,930 during the same academic year. In-state tuition eligibility for undocumented students varies on a state-by-state basis. Furthermore, it is important to note that a growing number of schools offer flat tuition rates for all students, regardless of their state residency status. A state-by-state breakdown is found in the table below.

Tuition for Undocumented Students Policies by State
State Policy States
Allow for in-state tuition rates for undocumented students California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington
Allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas and Washington
Specifically prohibit in-state tuition rates for undocumented students Arizona, Georgia, Indiana
Prohibit undocumented students from enrolling at any public postsecondary institution Alabama, South Carolina
Grants in-state tuition to DACA-covered students Virginia

Source: NCSL


Private scholarships and grants can be a valuable source of financial support for DACA students, other undocumented individuals who do not qualify for federal aid, and first-generation students who need extra support to afford higher education. Below you will find 10 scholarships and grants reserved for candidates who identify as either undocumented/DACA students or first-generation Americans.

Anhelo Project Dream Scholarship

Amount varies; applicants must be Illinois residents attending or planning to attend a school in Illinois, and must have at least 12 college credits when they submit their application. They must also be ineligible for federal financial aid. DACA students are welcome to apply. More Information

Educators for Fair Education New Americans Scholarship

Up to $7,000; applicants must have graduated or plan to graduate from high school in the San Francisco area. They must be foreign-born; U.S. citizens and permanent residents are ineligible. More Information

Esperanza Education Fund Scholarship

$5,000 to $20,000 for four years; applicants must be foreign-born or U.S.-born with two foreign-born parents, and must be either a graduating senior or GED recipient who has attended high school in the District of Columbia, Maryland, or Virginia. More Information

Fontana Transport Inc Scholars Program

Amount varies; applicants must be first-in-family college students, but do not need to be U.S. citizens. Candidates must be planning to major in one of nine academic fields, including transportation, Spanish language, pre-med, or five different STEM disciplines. More Information

Golden Door

Awardees receive full tuition, room, and board at a Golden Door partner school. Applicants must be eligible for DACA or Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and have a strong academic record. More Information

Hispanic Fund College Scholarship

$500 to $5,000; applicants must be of Hispanic heritage and planning to enroll at an accredited four-year college or university the following fall. U.S. citizens and those that are eligible for DACA may apply. More Information

Latino Resources College Scholarship Fund

$500 to $2,000; must be a Latino student with a strong academic record who is either a U.S. citizen or meets criteria for DACA. More Information

PepsiCo Cesar Chavez Latino Scholarship

$3,000 (10 awards annually); candidates must be of Latino descent from California or Arizona, regardless of immigration status. More Information

TheDream.US Community College Graduate Scholarship

Amount varies; applicants must be DACA or TPS students who arrived in the U.S. prior to their 16th birthday, and they must not have earned any prior college credit. More Information

TheDream.US First Time College Student Scholarship

Amount varies; applicants must be DACA or TPS students who arrived in the U.S. prior to their 16th birthday, and they must not have earned any prior college credit. More Information

Resources for Undocumented Students

For more information about the sources cited in this article, please click the links below.

  • Pew Research Center: This 2017 article from Pew Research Center notes that there are roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., including eight million in the workforce.
  • Pew Research Center: According to this report from September 1, 2017, DACA has protected approximately 790,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation since President Obama signed the executive order in 2012.
  • Federal Student Aid: This FAQ from the U.S. Department of Education offers tips and strategies for undocumented immigrants and DACA students who wish to apply for and receive non-federal financial aid.
  • College Board: Titled "Young Lives on Hold," this 2009 report illustrates the challenges that undocumented students face as they seek college education, including barriers to federal financial aid and enrollment in some states.
  • This statistical analysis looks at various data associated with undocumented immigrants, including common countries of origin, states of residence, and distribution by age and gender.
  • Inside Higher Ed: This 2016 article (subtitled "Undocumented Students Deserve Better") looks at ways that college administrators can help undocumented students gain access to financial aid and receive a college education.
  • Using data from January 2017, this national map lists the various policies, requirements, and restrictions for DACA students found in all 50 states, as well as some links for state financial aid applications where this option is available.
  • Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities: This informational page from HACU includes background information about the Higher Education Act of 1965 and the creation of the Hispanic-Serving Institution program.
  • U.S. Department of Education: This page lists the current definition for a Hispanic-Serving Institution, as well as links to data from the National Center of Education Statistics that pertains to Hispanic students.
  • Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities: This fact sheet from HACU lists the total number of HSIs in the U.S., as well as statistical data regarding HSI growth and Hispanic student educational attainment trends.
  • College Board: Titled "Advising Undocumented Students," this academic counselors' guide goes over the various admissions and financial aid policies guiding undocumented student education at the federal, state, and institutional levels.
  • U.S. Department of Education: This page offers a detailed explanation of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), including a definition of directory information and instances when college officials may disclose student records without expressed consent.
  • U.S. Department of Education: This parents' guide to FERPA explains what the act is intended to do, a definition of directory information, and details about who gets access to a child's educational records (and why).
  • Test of English as a Foreign Language: The official website of the TOEFL entrance exam includes individual sections for test-takers, institutions, and teachers and advisors, as well as information about how to sign up for and prepare for the exam.
  • International English Language Testing System: On this official website for the IELTS entrance exam, visitors will find information about test format and grading policies along with sample exam questions and registration procedures.
  • Free Application for Federal Financial Aid: This online version of the 2016–17 FAFSA form is 10 pages in length. The form includes information about FAFSA deadlines, accessing financial records through tax returns, filling out the required information, and properly submitting the form.
  • IRS Data Retrieval Tool: FAFSA applicants can use this page to access past IRS tax forms for themselves and their families, and then automatically input this data into the form without manually transcribing it.
  • National Immigration Law Center: This fact sheet covers basic information about state laws that enable undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates when they attend college.
  • College Board: The "Trends in Higher Education" report from College Board lists the average annual tuition costs for in-state and out-of-state students at public two- and four-year and private not-for-profit schools.
  • National Conference of State Legislature: This NCSL report explains the tuition policies, requirements, and restrictions for DACA students as they vary from state to state, as well as some background information about these laws and links to related articles.