There’s an increasing number of students attending college without legal permission to reside in the United States. According to a 2020 study by the New American Economy and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, about 2% of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions—more than 450,000 people—have “undocumented” status in the US. The majority of these so-called undocumented college students came to the US as children or teens and grew up and attended primary and secondary school in this country.
Obtaining a college degree can improve your career prospects and help you achieve your financial goals. However, if you’re an undocumented student in the US without proper authorization or you entered the country with a visa that has expired, you’ll likely deal with substantial challenges that other students don’t have to worry about. Below are some common issues affecting undocumented students and some potential solutions to earn your college degree more easily.
Some states don’t allow undocumented students to attend public school
As you think about where you want to go to school, opting for a public university is an excellent way to reduce your education expenses. According to the College Board, public schools cost on average about 72% less than private universities. However, some states don’t offer in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, even if they’ve lived in that state most of their lives. And two states—Alabama and South Carolina—prohibit undocumented students from enrolling at any public post-secondary school.
What you can do
If you live in a state that doesn’t allow you to enroll in a public school or will charge you out-of-state tuition, you have a few options:
- Attend a public school in a partnering state: Some states have reciprocity agreements that allow out-of-state students to attend without paying out-of-state tuition. Undocumented students can take advantage of these agreements to attend school in another state.
- Enroll in a private school: While Alabama and South Carolina prohibit undocumented students from attending public universities, those states cannot stop you from enrolling in a private college.
Federal student aid isn’t available for undocumented students
Most college students can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to gain access to federal financial aid. Unfortunately, undocumented students aren’t eligible for any federal aid, including student loans. This puts a huge strain on undocumented students’ ability to pay for college.
What you can do
While you can’t get federal aid, there are other sources of financial aid you can use to pay for your education:
- State financial aid: Some states offer state-sponsored financial aid programs to undocumented students. For example, students in California may be eligible for the Cal Grant, Middle Class Scholarship, or the California Community College California Promise Grant. Check with your state education agency to see if you qualify for similar opportunities.
- Private scholarships and grants: You may still be eligible for an array of scholarships and grants. You can also use Act on a Dream, a searchable database, to find opportunities for undocumented undergraduate and graduate students.
- Institutional aid: Some colleges provide financial assistance to undocumented students. For example, Georgetown University offers need-based scholarships to undocumented students who meet the school’s criteria.
- Private student loans: Most private student loan lenders require applicants to be US citizens or permanent residents. However, there are a few lenders, such as MPower Financing, that lend to undocumented students. While some tend to have higher interest rates compared to federal loans, you can use them to cover the remaining cost of your education after receiving other forms of financial aid.
Health insurance may be harder to come by
As an undocumented student, you aren’t eligible for Medicaid or ACA coverage. Without insurance, you’re at risk of facing major medical bills if you become ill or get injured.
What you can do
There are several ways you can get coverage for your medical expenses:
- Get coverage through school or an employer: While you can’t get health insurance through federal programs, you can still get health coverage through your university or employer if you have a job.
- Visit community health centers: Community health centers provide primary and preventative care, typically at a reduced cost.
- Purchase short-term insurance: You can purchase short-term care insurance from private insurance companies. While these policies are typically less comprehensive than other insurance policies, they can provide you with protection against costly hospital or medical bills.
Studying abroad may not be an option
Studying abroad is an excellent way to experience new cultures, broaden your worldview, and improve your foreign language skills. But as an undocumented student, studying abroad can be risky. If you leave the United States to study in another country, the government may prevent you from reentering.
What you can do
If you have your heart set on studying in another country for a semester or year, plan ahead. You may be able to qualify for advance parole and get temporary permission to travel and re-enter the US. However, the advance parole process can take months, and not everyone will qualify. If you can’t get an advance parole in time, avoid traveling abroad altogether.
Attending college as an undocumented student has a lot of hurdles—but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Seek out the right resources (like this article!) that can help you find ways around the roadblocks. You deserve a great postsecondary education as much as any other student—you may just have to work a little harder to attain it.
Use the keyword “undocumented” in our Scholarship Search tool to discover great opportunities to help pay for your education!