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11 Tips for Undocumented Students Applying to College

By Alexandra Rice

Imagine growing up working hard in elementary, middle and high school only to realize that you probably can’t go on to college. For many undocumented students, this is their reality — or at least what they believe it is due to a lack of clear information.

Of the approximately 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school each year, only 5% to 10% go on to college, according to a 2013 report by Fairfield University, Loyola University Chicago and Santa Clara University. This is in comparison to the 66% of 2013 high school graduates in the U.S. who enrolled in college that fall, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For many of these students, the idea of college feels out of reach due to financial and legal concerns.

“Federal law does not prohibit the admission of undocumented students to public universities or colleges; however, states may admit or bar undocumented students from enrolling as a matter of policy or through legislation,” the universities’ study says. “A vast majority of states do not prohibit the admission of undocumented students to public institutions, while private universities are free to admit undocumented students regardless of state laws.”

Currently 18 states allow in-state tuition for undocumented students and three states prohibit it. So while there are certainly more barriers for undocumented students when it comes to getting a college education, it’s far from impossible. To help undocumented students apply to and pay for college, NerdScholar reached out to the experts who offered these 11 tips.


1. Reach out to the school’s center or program for undocumented students.
“Although not on every campus, these centers can provide information on applying to the university and help answer questions about things like financial aid for undocumented students,” Andrea Gaytan, director of the AB540 and Undocumented Student Center at the University of California, Davis, says. “More than that, they can continue to be a resource and community while you’re in school,” she adds.

2. Ask admission offices how your status will affect the application process.
“Some schools will treat undocumented students like domestic applicants, meaning they’ll consider them with the same financial aid policies as they do for U.S. citizens,” says Joel Hart, interim associate dean at Pomona College in Claremont, California. “Most schools, however, will treat undocumented students as international students, meaning they’ll be competing for more limited financial aid dollars,” he adds. Students should contact every school they plan to apply to learn how their application will be treated.

3. Consider the campus and its surrounding community.
“It will be important to feel comfortable and safe not only on campus, but also in the outlying town or city you will be living in throughout your college career. Think about what the community has to offer in terms of a positive social climate and services for undocumented people,” Gaytan advises.

4. Work with college access programs while in high school.
These programs hold informational meetings and often have test prep courses, says Rebecca Merrick, an international student advisor at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. To find a college access program in your area, ask a teacher, local college or try your local YMCA chapter.

5. Embrace your identity.
Fear often plays a large part in the college application process for undocumented students, as many are reluctant to reveal their immigration status for fear of potential repercussions. Hart, from Pomona, says, “Don’t be afraid to embrace your identity as an undocumented student when appropriate. Sometimes, that identity arises from a powerfully compelling story that only you can tell about yourself, like in an essay.”

[Ready to start writing? Here are 7 tips for writing a standout college application essay.]



6. Look for private scholarships while in high school.
The ideal time to start looking for scholarships is early in your senior year of high school, or in the year prior to attending college. “For undocumented students, private scholarships can offer important coverage for discretionary costs like meals, housing, transportation and books in addition to covering your tuition,” Gaytan of UC Davis says. “Take a look at civic organizations in your hometown, as well as your prospective college campus for available scholarships.”

7. Ask colleges if you qualify for institutional aid.
Though undocumented students cannot receive federal financial aid, they can receive institutional aid—and in a few cases they can receive financial aid from their state. “The student will need to check with their admissions counselor and/or financial aid counselor for the policies of the college or university that they are interested in because each institution is different,” advises Stephanie Tolbert, the vice president of admissions at Louisburg College in Louisburg, North Carolina.

8. Ask if the college waives fees for applicants with financial need.
“Many colleges have a policy like this, even if they don’t necessarily advertise it,” Hart from Pomona says. “Don’t assume that every school will be unwilling to provide financial assistance,” he adds.

[Ready to start applying? Here are 6 more tips for saving money on your college application.]


9. Apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
“While DACA status is not essential for gaining access to higher education, it will open up many doors and opportunities—from employment, to academic internships, to study abroad, and even financial aid,” says Melissa Quan, associate director of Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life in Connecticut. Quan encourages students who want to apply to seek out assistance to ensure that they complete the application accurately. She recommends United We Dream as a good place to start.

10. Follow policy changes toward undocumented students.
“Gain an understanding of the landscape,” Quan says. Laws aimed at undocumented immigrants are constantly changing, so staying in the know will help to inform you decisions about college and beyond. If you’re unsure whether you qualify for admission, financial aid or anything else, be sure to ask and double check any answers you receive.

11. Know your rights.
“Many undocumented students assume (and perhaps are even advised) that because they are not eligible for federal financial aid, they cannot (or should not) complete the FASFA form,” Quan says. “However, this is not true in all cases. For students with DACA status, completing the FAFSA form or the CSS profile (College Board) can help them gather the information needed to apply for other forms of financial aid for which they are eligible.”

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