Ask the Experts

Undocumented Undergrad

My parents finally told me we were in the U.S. illegally. Can I still apply to college and get a scholarship?

Although over one million immigrant children without legal status live in the U.S., fewer than 6,500 of them are estimated to go on to attend college. We receive a lot of questions from undocumented children who erroneously think that because they are not documented, they cannot access higher education. Yet students do have legal options. Armed with the right information and assistance, you can pursue higher education.

There is currently no federal or state law that prohibits the admission of undocumented immigrants into American colleges. The law does not require students to prove citizenship to enter institutions of higher education though policies on admittance of undocumented students do vary.

Each college will have its own set of requirements which may include proof of residence, although it is not a legal requirement. Some public schools accept undocumented immigrants but treat them as foreign students. This does render them ineligible for state aid and lower tuition for state residents.

Admittance is only one part of the college experience. Students have to secure housing in the dorms or start looking for rooms, house shares or condos for rent. The housing law covering rental to an undocumented immigrant can vary by state, although there is no prohibition at the federal level.

Two major barriers to the continuation of education for undocumented students are lack of information and assistance. Non-profit immigrant advocacy organizations such as the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Educational Empowerment Program work towards changing this.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) enacted by the Obama Administration offers temporary residence status to some young immigrants enabling them to study and work legally. One issue generating controversy is the eligibility for lower tuition rates for undocumented students residing in the U.S. Many colleges charge out-of-state tuition fees which can put attendance financially out of reach for a lot of students. Eighteen states do allow teens without legal status to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges providing they meet the entry requirements. These often stipulate that the student must have lived in-state for a number of years and have graduated from high school.

The financial aid process generates more confusion for immigrant students who are not familiar with the procedures, which of course vary from state to state. Help is available from campus groups, college boards and nonprofit organizations that provide information and assistance to students without citizenship.

Federal aid is unavailable for most immigrant students but scholarship dollars are not. A number of scholarship funds make awards specifically to immigrant students with temporary-resident status. There are a growing number of resources with information on how and where to apply for scholarships across the U.S.

Most colleges have installment-based payment plans and the provision to work on temporary resident status is also accessible. Small loans are available to cover the costs of books and study materials. If you are ineligible to work legally, there will be jobs on campus that can be obtained, with wages offsetting tuition fees, housing or other college expenses.

Another option is attending an online college, where the tuition fees are much lower and the enrollment process is much simpler. Not surprisingly, online colleges specifically for undocumented students have emerged. Across all online schools, one of the more popular choices for students is an online health science degree, often leading to jobs in allied medical care or perhaps nursing.

The advice is to reach out and ask, since many things that you believe are not available actually are. A growing number of student support and advisory services are becoming available to immigrant students, so take advantage of them.

Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life… John F. Kennedy.

Suzanne Hite is a former publications editor serving the technology services sector.