beginning of content:

Higher education obstacles and possibilities

There are an estimated 65,000 undocumented students — children born abroad who are not U.S. citizens or legal residents — who graduate from U.S. high schools each year. These children are guaranteed an education in U.S. public schools through grade 12, but may face legal and financial barriers to higher education. What can you tell undocumented students about their options for college?

There are three main areas on the path to higher education where undocumented students may have special concerns or face obstacles: admission, tuition and financial aid.

College admission policies

Undocumented students may incorrectly assume that they cannot legally attend college in the United States. However, there is no federal or state law that prohibits the admission of undocumented immigrants to U.S. colleges, public or private. Federal or state laws do not require students to prove citizenship in order to enter U.S. institutions of higher education. Yet institutional policies on admitting undocumented students vary.

For example, many four-year state colleges in Virginia (following a 2003 recommendation by the state attorney general) require applicants to submit proof of citizenship or legal residency and refuse admission to students without documentation. This policy is not, however, a state law. In many other states, public institutions accept undocumented students but treat them as foreign students; they are therefore ineligible for state aid and the lower tuition charged to state residents.

College tuition policies

An issue generating controversy today is the question of whether undocumented students residing in a U.S. state should be eligible for the lower tuition rates that state residents pay for their state's public institutions. Many state institutions charge undocumented students out-of-state tuition fees (even if the student is a longtime resident of the state), and this policy can put college out of their reach financially.

Some states have passed laws that permit undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates under certain conditions. Counselors should familiarize themselves with their state's specific prerequisites. The Repository of Resources for Undocumented Students (.pdf/1,068KB) provides a good starting point.

In 2011, the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act was introduced into the 112th Congress. If passed, this legislation would permit undocumented students to begin a six-year process leading to permanent legal status if, among other requirements, they graduate from a U.S. high school and came to the U.S. at the age of 15 or younger at least five years before the legislation is signed into law. To complete the process they would, within the six-year period, be required to graduate from a community college, complete at least two years toward a four-year degree, or serve at least two years in the U.S. military. These individuals would qualify for in-state tuition rates in all states during the six-year period.

Federal, state and institutional financial aid policies

Undocumented students cannot legally receive any federally funded student financial aid, including loans, grants, scholarships or work-study money.

In most states, they are not eligible for state financial aid. Some states do grant eligibility for state financial aid to undocumented students who qualify for in-state tuition. This has proven a contentious issue, so the situation is subject to change.

Most private scholarship funds and foundations require applicants to be U.S. citizens or legal residents, but there are some that do not. The Resources section on this page links to a list of scholarships that may be available to undocumented students.

Private institutions set their own financial aid policies. Some are willing to give scholarships and other aid to undocumented students.

 The counselor's role

Legally, K–12 school personnel cannot inquire about the immigration status of students or their parents. Therefore, you may learn that a student is undocumented only if the student chooses to share this information. Undocumented students may not even be aware of their legal status. 

What you can do:

  • Reach out as early as possible to all students and encourage them to envision themselves as college material, explore career options and prepare academically for college. If the opportunity arises, let students know that undocumented status is not a legal bar to attending a U.S. college.
  • Explain the requirements for federal financial aid when discussing financial aid at parent meetings or other group sessions: recipients must be U.S. citizens or legal residents. You can explain financial aid policies and options to parents and students without asking about their immigration status.
  • Know your state's laws regarding undocumented students and stay up-to-date on changes in the laws. (See the Resources section for information on state laws.)
  • Let students know there are scholarships available to undocumented students. (See the Resources section.)