Undocumented Students and the Struggle to Get to College

The costs--and fears--undocumented students hoping to earn a college education face

As students prepare to burst through the proverbial bubble that has protected them from the truths of the world up until senior year of high school, they are often faced with some of the most difficult decisions they’ve ever had to make. However, some students face more difficulties than others, with little or no support system.

Undocumented students applying for college not only face the normal, agonizing college decisions, but many additional struggles, from not being able to afford college to being afraid to ask for help out of fear of being deported.  

Each year hundreds of undocumented students apply to college. But unlike their US citizen peers, they aren’t eligible for federal financial aid—including government loans, grants, or work-study money—and they often have to pay out-of-state tuition rates at public schools. Also, many private scholarships provided by various organizations are only available to US citizens. I have met multiple students who have spent hours carefully filling out a scholarship application, only to be told at the end that they aren’t eligible due to the fact that they were born on the wrong side of an imaginary line.

What does this look like in real life? Well, according to the College Board, the average 2015–2016 tuition cost for public schools for in-state students was $9,410; the average out-of-state tuition was $23,893. That’s over $14,000 more—and it’s just tuition, not even including room, board, and other living expenses.

In the years before President Obama, undocumented students were expected to pay this large sum for higher education and they couldn’t even have a source of income, because it was illegal for them to work in the United States. Now, thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), undocumented students who meet certain criteria can apply and hopefully get approved for special protections and privileges. (Keep in mind that DACA doesn’t create a pathway to citizenship; it just allows select immigrants to stay in the US without getting deported. Also, the DACA status is only good for two years at a time, so students need to reapply. And it’s an executive action that can be repealed at any time.)

A few things DACA provides: Students might be eligible for in-state tuition; it varies from state the state. Though they still aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, they may be able to get a Social Security Number and use it fill out the FAFSA to get a Student Aid Report, which shows colleges and scholarship organizations their demonstrated financial need and may lead to more financial aid opportunities. And DACA students can also get work authorization cards that allow them to get jobs and earn money.

For DACA-covered students who don’t get in-state tuition rates in their state, they would need to pay the out-of-state tuition rate. Although they might be eligible for some private scholarships, that’s still a huge expense—ask any student faced with paying it. And if they’re like most students, working jobs that pay around $8 per hour, they’d need to work full time—40 hours a week—on top of going to school to earn only about $15,000 a year after income tax (yes, undocumented people still pay taxes). If they’re paying the average out-of-state tuition rate of $23,893, they’re still on the hook for almost $9,000, and that’s with their whole paycheck going towards their tuition, not taking into account food, housing, and transportation necessities.

But all of this is just for DACA students. What about undocumented students who don’t meet the DACA eligibility requirements? Justin is one of those students. He arrived with his parents just a few years too late to qualify for DACA, so he’s not eligible for in-state tuition anywhere, and he can’t legally work in the United States. Justin attended high school here. He’s profoundly intelligent and creative. But he still faces deportation even though his parents brought him here. In a conversation over bubble tea and puff pastries, he told me there are moments when he tries not to think about his status and how he isn’t eligible for the same privileges his fellow students get. Justin went on to mention, “Under President Obama’s administration, around two million undocumented families, students, and workers have been deported,” which is something most Americans are unaware of. Like many other undocumented students, Justin now attends a community college even though he had hopes and abilities for something more. But sitting across from him in a dimly lit cafe, I would have never known he felt this way if he did not tell me. He’s so optimistic. It’s almost contagious.

Optimism is trait present in many undocumented students. They continue to go to high school, strive for excellence, and hope for a future in college, though a small part of them knows—or at least thinks—this might be the end of their academic journey. One of OnlineCollege.org’s eye-opening facts about undocumented students:

Although 50,000 to 65,000 undocumented students graduate from US high schools each year, Education Week reports that many of them do not apply to college because it is “economically inaccessible.” Still others do not take advantage of in-state tuition programs because they are not aware of them. And in other cases, even students who are aware of in-state tuition programs don't use them because their inability [to get] financial aid means that college is still out of reach financially.

Most undocumented students face challenges citizens aren’t even aware of. They hear stereotypes of stolen green cards and jobs. They are afraid to open up to anyone, given the stigma and fear of deportation that comes with their illegal status. Those students who do enter the college application process know the future is uncertain, and they get little to no support along the way.

In my blogs, I am supposed to give advice to my fellow college applicants. But all I can really say is stay hopeful that one day we will live up to the creed that this county was founded on, that “all men are created equal.” And that they should be given equal opportunity along the way.

Undocumented students looking for college and financial aid help will find a bunch of resources here. They can also contact the Student Immigrant Movement (in Massachusetts) or search for similar groups in their home state.

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