Over the past few decades, immigration has been a hotly debated topic in the United States. While much of the focus has been on border security and deportations, there are over 10 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the US as of 2017 according to Pew Research Center analysis.
Many of these undocumented immigrants were brought to the US as children and have grown up here. These individuals are sometimes referred to as DREAMers, based on the proposed DREAM Act legislation that aims to provide them a pathway to citizenship.
There are approximately 700,000 DACA recipients in the US currently. DACA, also known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an Obama-era program that provides temporary relief from work authorization and deportation to undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children.
A significant question facing many undocumented youths is how they can access and afford higher education. Attending college is highly challenging for undocumented students due to their ineligibility for federal financial aid and difficulties securing private loans and scholarships.
However, there are ways for determined and driven students to piece together funding and resources to complete a college degree. In the article, I will provide an overview of illegal immigrants’ challenges in attending college, the strategies they use to access higher education, and the continued debate around tuition equity policies.
Challenges Facing Illegal Immigrants Students in Attending College
Undocumented or Illegal immigrants face significant barriers in accessing and affording higher education. Some of the main challenges include:
Ineligibility for Federal Financial Aid: Undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid, and this includes federal student loans, Pell Grants, and work-study programs under current law. This excludes them from the major source of financial aid used by most college students.
Difficulty Obtaining In-State Tuition: Without legal immigration status, students face obstacles in establishing residency required to pay lower in-state tuition charges (fees) at public colleges and universities. State policies vary widely in this area.
Barred from Attending Select Institutions: Many top universities do not accept undocumented students. For example, policies at UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan prevent undocumented applicants.
Uncertainty Around Work Authorization: Undocumented graduates have limited work authorization options post-graduation. This makes return on investment in college unclear.
Social Limitations: Due to fears around revealing legal status, undocumented students can experience social isolation and code-switching in college. This takes an emotional toll.
Together, these challenges create major financial, logistical, and emotional hurdles for undocumented students seeking to enroll in higher education. Yet some states and private funders provide assistance to support these students.
Key Strategies Undocumented Students Use to Access College
Despite substantial barriers, many undocumented students find ways to cobble together funding and resources to enroll in and graduate from college. Some of the key strategies include:
Seeking In-State Tuition Rates: In 21 states and Washington DC, undocumented students can pay in-state tuition at universities and public colleges if they meet specific residency requirements. This makes higher education far more affordable.
Applying for Institutional Aid: Some private colleges provide institutional financial aid to undocumented students. Schools in more liberal states tend to lead in this area.
Crowdfunding Tuition: Platforms like GoFundMe enable DREAMers to fundraise for their education costs. Large networks are key to successful tuition crowdfunding.
Scholarships from Immigrant Advocacy Organizations: Organizations like TheDream.US and Golden Door provide scholarships to undocumented students, often with specific partner colleges.
Private Student Loans: Smaller banks and credit unions offer student loans to DREAMers, though interest rates are often high due to lack of credit history.
Pursuing Sanctuary Campuses: A small number of “sanctuary campuses” exist where undocumented students can feel secure and supported.
Support from Legal Advocacy Groups: Organizations like United We Dream connect undocumented students to legal help and campus resources.
Drawing on Community Networks: Immigrant networks, especially in states like California and Texas, provide housing, job, and scholarship connections.
By combining these strategies and tapping into support resources, determined undocumented students find ways to access higher education. Those focused on high-earning fields like engineering and nursing increase their chances of repaying loans and getting post-graduation work authorization.
State Tuition Equity Policies for Undocumented Students
One of the biggest factors in college access for undocumented students is whether they can qualify for in-state tuition at public universities in their state.
States take a range of approaches:
- 21 states + Washington DC offer in-state tuition to undocumented students who meet residency requirements
- 6 states bar in-state tuition for undocumented students
- The rest have no laws on the issue and decisions are left to individual colleges
Notable tuition equity states include:
- California: AB 540 provides in-state tuition for undocumented students at public schools since 2001. Over 20,000 students have benefited.
- Texas: SB 1528 grants residency status for tuition purposes to undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools.
- New York: The DREAM Act offers in-state tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for those who graduate from New York high schools.
- Utah: SB 253 extends in-state tuition to undocumented students who attend high school in Utah for 3+ years and graduate.
- New Jersey: SB 4 allows undocumented immigrants who attended at least 3 years of high school in the state to be eligible for in-state rates.
- Oregon: HB 2787 makes undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition at public universities after earning an Oregon high school diploma.
- Maryland: SB 167 grants in-state tuition eligibility based on high school attendance and graduation in the state.
Without access to in-state tuition, undocumented students face tuition bills that can be 3 times higher at public schools. Tuition equity policies significantly widen college access.
Continued Debate Around Tuition Equity
Despite progress, tuition equity policies remain controversial in many states. Opponents argue that providing in-state tuition benefits to undocumented immigrants rewards illegal immigration.
However, supporters counter that tuition equity:
- Aligns with economic interests by producing more college graduates
- Helps assimilate immigrants by promoting education
- Rewards immigrants brought to the US as children illegally through no fault of their own
- Boosts diversity that benefits all students on campus
There are active efforts to repeal or challenge tuition equity laws in states like Arizona, Georgia, and New Jersey. The debate highlights broader divisions around immigration policy.
Public opinion on tuition equity is mixed. A 2019 Pew poll found 54% of Americans support in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants compared to 42% opposed. Support is higher among Hispanics, Asians, and those 18 to 29 years old.
Looking ahead, the policy landscape remains uncertain. Changes in immigration laws and enforcement could affect existing tuition equity laws and colleges’ admittance of undocumented students.
- Undocumented students face major barriers to higher education access, but determined individuals can piece together resources to attend college
- In-state tuition and state financial aid policies are critical for affordability and access
- Crowdfunding, institutional aid, scholarships, and community networks expand options for DREAMers
- Tuition equity for undocumented students remains debated, with state policies varying significantly
For driven undocumented students, a college degree opens doors to career opportunities that can help them give back to the country they call home. Ensuring college access requires expanding financial aid, tuition equity, and assistance programs tailored to support these students.