Resources for Applying to College as an Undocumented Student

Resources for Accessing Higher Education

Being undocumented and going through the college search and application process can feel isolating, particularly if your school doesn’t know much about college affordability options for undocumented students, but you are not alone! There are more than 450,000 undocumented students currently enrolled in higher education who have already navigated the same process you are starting now. If they can do it, so can you! In addition, many undocumented and formerly undocumented folks who were once in the same position as you are now have created resources to help guide students through the college application process.

Reminder: Your high school teachers and other staff are legally prohibited from asking about your immigration status. You have the power to disclose information about your immigration status if, and when you feel comfortable doing so.

Terms You Should Know

There are many terms, processes, and programs you will likely hear as you start your college search that may be new to you. Below are a few terms that come up frequently during the college search, including some that are particularly relevant to undocumented students.

The Common Application is a college admissions application used by over 800 colleges and universities across the United States for both first-year admission and transfer students. It is frequently used by students applying to colleges because of the high number of schools that accept the application, including privates, publics, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The Common Application also allows students to track many components of their applications including recommendation letters, school forms, and supplemental portions. A separate application, the Common Black College Application, allows individuals to apply to any number of their HBCU member institutions with only one application fee.   

 

Students who demonstrate the need for tuition assistance are often able to receive funds to help them pay for college. These funds can come from a variety of sources, including state and federal governments, colleges and universities, and private organizations. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid but can access state financial aid in some states. You can find out if undocumented students qualify for state financial aid by visiting the University Leaders for Educational Access and Diversity (uLEAD) Network. Students can often also get financial aid directly from their college or university, particularly if they are attending a private institution. In order to determine the amount of aid they will provide, colleges may ask students to fill out financial aid forms such as College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. Some schools may even ask undocumented students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) even if they are not eligible for federal aid. (Read more on FAFSA below.) Certain states that have passed laws extending state-based financial aid to undocumented students also have their own aid forms, like Texas and California. Private scholarships or other aid that is not controlled by a college, university, or government entity can be need-based or merit-based. 

 

Because they are owned by private, profit-motivated businesses, for-profit colleges and universities can be controversial and are often the subject of criticism. In particular, for-profit colleges have come under fire for using deceptive and predatory marketing that is frequently aimed at first-generation and low-income students. In addition, not all for-profit schools are accredited, meaning that they may not meet the minimum quality standards expected of a higher education institution. If you are considering a for-profit college or university, it’s critical that you closely research the institutions you are considering and make an informed decision about enrolling in a for-profit school. See The Best Schools’ Guide to For-Profit Colleges: What You Need to Know to learn more.

 

In order for eligible students to access federal financial aid, they must fill out the FAFSA form. No undocumented students, regardless of whether they have DACA, are eligible for federal financial aid. However, despite the ineligibility to access federal aid, DACA recipients can fill out and submit the FAFSA because they possess a social security number. Sometimes, colleges and universities may ask students, regardless of their eligibility for federal funds, to fill out the FAFSA form so that the institution can determine how much aid to give you. FAFSA is only one way that some institutions determine need-based financial aid. You should check with your college’s financial aid office to determine if filling out FAFSA is the right process for DACA recipients at that institution. Undocumented students cannot submit the FAFSA form. You should never lie about your immigration status or use false information when filling out college admissions or federal government paperwork, including the FAFSA form. The U.S. Department of Education acknowledges that “most states and colleges use information collected on the FAFSA form to determine whether you’re eligible for aid. However, we first recommend that you check with your high school counselor or your college or career school’s financial aid office to see what types of financial aid you may be eligible to receive and whether completing the FAFSA form is the way to apply for that aid.” You can read more guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on FAFSA here. For those colleges that do ask you to fill out the FAFSA form, some may allow you to print the FAFSA form, fill it out, and submit it directly to the institution for them to assess your need for financial aid. This bypasses the need to submit your information via the FAFSA form to the federal government since undocumented students are not eligible for federal aid anyways and may provide a way for undocumented students without DACA to still be assessed for and receive financial aid through their college or university.  

 

An ITIN is a tax processing number issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to certain immigrants who cannot get a social security number and have a tax filing requirement. The ITIN allows individuals to comply with federal tax laws, open a bank account, and build credit. When you are applying to college, institutions may use your or a parent’s ITIN to verify your family’s income in order to decide what financial aid to give you. Learn more about the ITIN from the National Immigration Law Center

Public colleges and universities often charge lower tuition rates for applicants who are considered residents of the state in which the school is located. There are usually some requirements that students have to meet to establish in-state residency. These requirements vary greatly from state to state, but often include having a physical presence in the state for a certain duration of time (frequently one year). Undocumented students are sometimes eligible for in-state tuition but may have to meet certain requirements, including having attended some years of high school in the state. You can find out if undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition by visiting the University Leaders for Educational Access and Diversity (uLEAD) Network.

In the United States, private institutions of higher education operate independently from state or federal government agencies. Tuition at private colleges and universities is often more expensive than tuition at public universities. However, due to the fact that private colleges are primarily funded by non-government dollars, it is sometimes easier for undocumented students to obtain need-based financial aid that lowers their tuition rate.

In the United States, public institutions of higher education are owned and operated by the state in which they are located and almost always receive significant funding from the state and federal governments. Tuition at public colleges and universities is often less expensive than tuition at private colleges. However, undocumented students sometimes do not have the same access to financial aid or tuition rates that citizen students do. This inequity exists both because some schools do not consider undocumented students to be domestic applicants or in-state residents and because much of public institutions’ financial aid comes from government funding, which is prohibited from being granted to undocumented individuals. 

The Sanctuary Campus Movement emerged in November 2016 after the election of President Donald Trump. Due to Trump’s attacks on immigrants through his candidacy and proposed plans to end DACA and increase immigration enforcement in the United States, students feared for the safety of undocumented students on campus and push their schools to adopt “sanctuary policies.” Sanctuary policies can include not allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers on campus without a warrant, ensuring campus police will not engage in any immigration enforcement actions, not sharing students’ immigration statuses with ICE, providing tuition support for undocumented students, providing legal support for undocumented students, and more. It is important to note that the label of a “sanctuary campus” can be largely symbolic and varies in its meaning. While some colleges and universities have self-identified as sanctuary campuses, that does not necessarily mean that they have implemented any policies to support undocumented students on their campus. In addition, there are other colleges and universities that are not labeled as sanctuary campuses but have implemented substantial policies to support and protect undocumented students on campus.

A transfer student may refer to a student newly enrolling at a college or university after finishing their time at a community college or after leaving an institution that was not a good fit for them. For students coming from community college, transferring may be their next step to continue their education and earn their bachelor’s degree. Other students may have initially matriculated at a school that turns out, for a variety of reasons, not to be a good fit for them, and have decided to transfer to a new institution. The choice to transfer is a serious one and should be well-researched. Transfer students typically have to apply or reapply to new schools so their transfer will be accepted, a process which may have fees associated with it. In addition, students should be aware that there are some cases in which their credits may not transfer to their new school. As long as a student is making the right decision, there is no shame about transferring!

Understanding Higher Education Access for Undocumented Students in Your State

There is no federal law against U.S. colleges and universities accepting undocumented students. Higher education access is determined at the institutional and state levels, meaning each state has different laws and policies in place that determine if and how undocumented students are able to access in-state tuition, if they qualify for state financial aid, and, in very few cases, whether they may even be admitted to the state’s public universities. 

The best way to find out about your state’s higher education policies for undocumented students is by visiting the University Leaders for Educational Access and Diversity (uLEAD) Network. uLEAD created an interactive tool with up-to-date information on each state’s higher education accessibility, in-state tuition, and state financial aid for undocumented students.

Resources for High School Students Preparing for College or Trade School

Through the resources and guidance in this section, we aim to empower you to choose the vocational school, college, or university that’s right for you. 

When it comes to higher education, your college career is flexible. Some students enter trade school knowing what trade they want to work in. Others get their associate degree from community college and then enter the workforce or transfer to a four-year university to complete their bachelor’s degree. Others might even enroll at a four-year university and take time off in between semesters to work or take care of their families. You will find the path that is right for you.

 

Find allies!

We encourage you to seek out allies who can support you through this college application process. Your allies could be guidance counselors, teachers, community leaders, local non-profit organizations, religious institutions, or even friends. Some undocumented students have also found allies online in places like Facebook groups, Reddit chats, or Discord servers.

 

Trade School, Community College, or a Four-Year University?

Whether you decide on trade school, community college, or four-year university, you will have to choose what you are going to study, or major in. Your choice in what you study may be directly tied to the industry in which you plan to work. If you are undocumented, with or without DACA, you should be aware that some states have legislation that restricts whether undocumented folks can work in certain industries. Most of these restrictions involve the need for professional occupational licenses. 

Professional occupational licenses authorize individuals to practice certain professions like teaching, nursing, cosmetology, plumbing, and many more. While state governments regulate the requirements needed to qualify through their state licensing boards, federal law does not allow undocumented immigrants to access professional licenses – unless a state overrides the restriction. Many states have adjusted their licensing requirements to allow DACA recipients to obtain professional licenses, increasing the number of technical practitioners in their states. Others, like California, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, and New Jersey have removed citizenship requirements altogether. People who have been incarcerated are often similarly restricted from working in certain professions because they are prohibited from accessing professional licenses. 

Unfortunately, many undocumented folks find out that they will not be able to access the necessary professional license to work in a certain industry after they have already completed their schooling. As you are deciding on your course of study, consider what your career options will be after you graduate and whether you will need a professional license to work in your industry. Research whether or not professional licenses are accessible to undocumented professionals in your state. In many cases, there may not be an official policy regarding licensing and undocumented professionals. Some applications and licensing boards may be silent on the matter, which may allow you to obtain such licensing as long as you provide all the required information and materials. 

If you choose to embark on obtaining your bachelor’s degree, whether starting at a community college or a four-year university, you should know that the idea that it takes four years to complete a bachelor’s degree is a myth. The new reality is that a vast majority of students do not end up graduating in the traditional four-year window. At most public universities, only 19% of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years. Even at selective, research-intensive institutions, only 36% of full-time students complete their bachelor’s degree in four years. Many students take their time to finish their education at a pace that financially and personally makes sense for them. Education is not a race! If it takes longer than the traditional four years to graduate, it does not mean that it will set you back in your career. Take higher education at your own pace. 

 

Vocational and Trade Schools

A vocational or trade school may be its own institution or it may be part of a community college or four-year university. Vocational and trade schools are appealing because they have the ability to fast track individuals directly into their careers. Most vocational programs only take two years, and sometimes, they can even take the place of the last two years of high school. Furthermore, a strength of vocational and trade programs lies in the connections they are able to make for students with jobs in skilled trades.

Another perk of vocational programs is that they are more affordable than obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Something that may be especially attractive to undocumented individuals is that vocational and trade schools can also give you the skills you need to start your own business. Learn more about what it takes to start your own business in Working and Earning An Income While Undocumented. 

Note: Vocational and trade schools are different from “career colleges.” While vocational and trade schools are generally run by state and federal government entities, career colleges are most frequently private and for-profit institutions with less oversight about the quality and accreditation of their programs. Learn more from Online College Plan.   

 

Community Colleges

Community colleges, also called two-year colleges, are a great avenue to higher education for students who need a more flexible class schedule, are working their way through college, need to stay close to home and support their families, or are worried about the cost of higher education. For these reasons and many more, community colleges have historically been the most accessible path to higher education for undocumented students, and as a result, are often more familiar with the unique needs and challenges that undocumented students face. Due to their flexibility, community colleges are also often the choice of schools for “non-traditional” students. Being a “non-traditional” student might mean that you are working full time while in college, you have a spouse or children, or you are embarking on your college career in your mid-20s or beyond. Read more about what type of educational experience to look for as a non-traditional student here

Some advantages to attending a community college: 

The cost of tuition at a community college is considerably less than tuition at a four-year university. Not only will students be able to earn their associates for a much more affordable price, but if they decide to transfer to a four-year school, they will have saved money by attending two years of community college.

Students often have the option to attend school on a full-time or part-time basis, and community colleges frequently offer evening and night time classes that accommodate busy students with jobs, families, and other responsibilities.

Community colleges frequently have smaller class sizes that allow students to build stronger relationships with professors and get one-on-one support.

 

When you start earning your associate degree at a community college, that does not mean you have to stop there. Many students go on to transfer to a four-year college and earn their bachelor’s degree as well. In some states, when you finish your associate degree at a public community college, you are automatically accepted to any of the state’s public universities. If moving on to another university after community college is the right choice for you, being able to transfer easily to a state university can save you the stress and worry about credit transfers and what school you will be attending in the future. Make sure you check with the public universities in your state to learn more about how to apply as a transfer student from a community college. There are some four-year institutions that have guaranteed transfer programs for community college students. You can learn more about those programs here

Many community colleges also have programs in place that allow students to earn additional certificates in trades and industries along with their associate degree. By obtaining a certification while you are in community college, you may be able to enter the workforce while you continue your schooling. If you are undocumented, remember that some trades and industries require professional licenses that are not accessible to undocumented individuals in some states.

 

Four-Year Colleges and Universities  

Some advantages of four-year colleges and universities are that they offer a greater number of degree programs, a huge variety of classes, and more extracurricular activities for students. Four-year institutions may be the right choice for students who need to or want to get their education away from home, aim to pursue a niche degree or career, or are looking for an on-campus university experience. 

There is a huge variety of four-year colleges and universities out there for students to choose from including public universities, private colleges, commuter schools, art schools, research universities, liberal arts colleges, and more. With this breadth of options, you will be able to choose which four-year school is right for you. 

Many would consider the biggest drawback to attending a four-year college or university to be the cost of tuition. Tuition rates vary across four-year institutions. You can read more about this below. 

Tuition at public colleges and universities is often less expensive than tuition at private colleges. However, undocumented students sometimes do not have the same access to financial aid or tuition rates that citizen students do. This inequity exists both because some schools do not consider undocumented students to be domestic applicants or in-state residents and because much of public institutions’ financial aid comes from government funding, which is prohibited from being granted to undocumented individuals.  

Tuition at private colleges and universities is often more expensive than tuition at public universities. However, due to the fact that private colleges are primarily funded by non-government aid, it is sometimes easier for undocumented students to obtain need-based financial aid that lowers their tuition rate.

We’ll address more about paying for college in the How to Pay for College section.      

Online Education

The mission of many online universities is to increase access to higher education, especially for underrepresented students. Online education can be a great option for higher education because it is flexible and can allow students to work while in school. If you are looking for an online university, be sure to look for institutions that are accredited and not for profit

Note: For-profit colleges and universities are owned by private, profit-driven businesses, and as a result have been the subject of criticism and controversy. In particular, for-profit colleges have come under fire for using deceptive and predatory marketing that is frequently aimed at first-generation and low-income students. In addition, not all for-profit schools are accredited, meaning that they may not meet the minimum quality standards expected of a higher education institution. Students who attend non-accredited institutions might not be considered qualified in their field upon graduation and may not have the same career opportunities available to them as students graduating from accredited institutions would have. 

 

Resources:

How to Pay for College

Tuition rates vary from school to school depending on the type of institution. As a reminder, tuition at public colleges and universities, including community colleges, is often less expensive than tuition at private colleges. To find out whether undocumented students can access in-state tuition rates at public universities in their home state, visit uLEAD Network’s website. While tuition at private colleges and universities is often more expensive than tuition at public universities, undocumented students may be able to obtain need-based financial aid that significantly lowers their tuition rate. Keep in mind that many undergraduate and graduate institutions may offer significant institutional aid (i.e., financial aid directly from the institution), particularly for those candidates with mid to high standardized test scores. Thus, studying for the required standardized test (whether self-study or through a course) and applying as a competitive candidate is often the first step to ensuring you maximize the amount of aid you obtain from an institution.

 

NOTE: During the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges and universities have made standardized tests an optional part of their application processes so that students do not have to risk their health or the health of others to take these tests.

Options to Pay for Higher Education 

Scholarships

A barrier that undocumented students frequently face when applying to scholarships is that many scholarships require that the recipient be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. Below is a curated list of resources that identify scholarships that are available to undocumented students. 

NOTE: Depending on the formula that your college uses to determine need-based financial aid, private scholarships that you earn may reduce the amount of aid you are eligible to receive from your institution. This does not necessarily mean that you will have to pay more tuition. Rather, your scholarship dollars might replace your financial aid package dollars or reduce the amount of your loan. If you have questions about how scholarships are considered in your financial aid package, you should ask your college or university’s financial aid office. Read more from The College Board.   

 

Loans

Although undocumented students are not able to access student loans from the federal government, they can often access private or personal loans from banks, credit unions, and other sources. While certain private loans are available to undocumented folks, the bank or organization making the loan will most likely require a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident with good credit to co-sign the loan.  

When you take out a loan you will have to repay it with interest, often within a set time-frame. If you decide that a loan is a good option for you, make sure you pay close attention to the terms and conditions, whether the interest rate is feasible for you, and what your repayment plan options are. Having some credit history and a good credit score may help you secure lower interest rates on your loan. Repaying your student loans on time can also help you build a good credit score. Learn more about credit, financial capital, and banking in the section, Working and Earning and Income While Undocumented.

When you are considering a loan, be aware of companies that offer “predatory loans.” Predatory loans are ones in which the terms and conditions of the loan are unfair to the borrower and can be hard to repay. Some key warning signs of predatory lending include:

  • 3-digit interest rates
  • Exceptionally high interest rates or additional fees for individuals with low or no credit scores
  • Penalties or fees for paying your loan off early
  • Added services and costs that are not part of the loan
  • Loan flipping, or encouraging you to refinance an existing loan into a larger one with a higher interest rate and additional fees
  • Being rushed into signing paperwork
  • Lying to you or asking you to lie or falsify information

Learn more about predatory lending from Student Loan Hero and Debt.org.

If you decided a loan is the right option for you, here are some banks and organizations that provide private student loans to undocumented students: 

  • Ascent
    • Requires a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident co-signer
  • Citizens Bank
    • Requires a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident co-signer
  • Discover
    • Requires U.S. citizen co-signer
  • EDvestinU
    • Requires a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident co-signer
  • Earnest
    • Requires a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident co-signer
  • MPOWER Financing 
    • Does not require a co-signer or credit history
  • Sallie Mae
    • Requires a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident co-signer
  • SoFi
    • Requires a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident co-signer
  • Stilt
    • Does not require a co-signer

Disclaimer: Informed Immigrant does not in any way endorse the lenders listed here, but is providing this list as a starting point for individuals to further their own research.

 

Community Support

While often informal, students are sometimes able to get financial support to attend college from their communities, particularly religious communities. If you are active in a church, temple, or mosque, you might consider inquiring to see if your community provides scholarships or other help to students in paying for college.

 

On-Campus Fellowships and Funding

Even though undocumented students cannot legally work (unless they have DACA), there are opportunities that colleges and universities can create to provide non-employment based funding and fellowships to undocumented students. Your school may have non-employment based experiential, education, or training fellowships that provide stipends to participants regardless of immigration status. Colleges and universities can learn more about funding opportunities for undocumented students from the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education & Immigration and Immigrants’ Rising. At minimum, some campus organizations or institutions may be able to find ways to support undocumented students for their involvement with gift cards for food, school supplies, and other necessities.

Resources for Undocumented College Students

Options for Undocumented High School Students