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.
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, 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:
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.
Public colleges and universities
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.
Private colleges and universities
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.
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.