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College Search Advice for Undocumented Students

Exploring colleges and starting the admission process can be scary for undocumented students, but with the right advice, it doesn't have to be!

For undocumented students, the college search can be nerve-wracking without the right guidance to understand the process. Every state has different laws about tuition and financial aid, and the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is in limbo right now. The most important thing to understand is you can go to college, even without DACA status. Here’s what you need to know.   

Research your state’s tuition and financial aid policies

Many states make college more expensive for undocumented students by charging out-of-state or international tuition rates even if you live there. These states are called “locked-out” states. Three states—Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana—actually forbid in-state tuition rates, whereas Alabama and South Carolina prohibit undocumented students from enrolling at their public institutions at all.

The good news is that at least 19 states offer in-state tuition rates to undocumented students at their public institutions, either through state legislation or Board of Regents decisions. A few university systems—or individual universities—offer in-state rates without state legislation. Find out what your state does. Private institutions are also worth exploring because some have substantial financial aid to offer.

Financial aid states

A handful of states offer state financial aid, and some states allow public universities to give institutional aid. These states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Policies change quickly, so be sure to research your state as well as individual universities.

Eligibility

If you live in a state that offers state financial aid assistance, you’ll need to determine if you’re eligible. Usually states require attending high school in the state for a specific number of consecutive years. Many institutions use an affidavit to determine whether or not a student may qualify, says Tanya Cabrera, Assistant Vice Provost at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Related: Public Schools With the Best Tuition Deals for Out-of-State Students

Understand how to access financial aid

Federal financial aid isn’t available for undocumented students. It’s possible you might be counseled to fill out the FAFSA to determine if you qualify for non-federal aid. However, Cabrera recommends undocumented students avoid the FAFSA and fill out an alternative financial aid form—either your state form (if there is one) or an institutional form. Ask the college’s financial aid office what it recommends. That’s even if you have DACA status and a Social Security number. It’s too easy to make a mistake on the FAFSA; “it’s still a new process for many, and many students cannot provide the required verification documents,” Cabrera says.

For instance, in California, the state financial aid form is called the California Dream Act Application. And in Illinois, the RISE Act has just rolled out for 2020–2021. These are just a couple examples; other states have forms too. If you or someone you know does fill out the FAFSA, call the college’s financial aid office and explain the situation, suggests Maria Barragan, Coordinator of the Undocumented Student Success Center at California State University, San Bernardino. The office can likely give you an alternative form, either state or institutional, at that point.

If the cost of a four-year college is beyond your reach, explore community colleges and agreements with your state universities. Cabrera says in Illinois, 71% of undocumented students begin at community college because it’s more affordable. Some states offer free community college and might extend that privilege to undocumented students as well. Find out what your state provides. 

Related: Financial Aid for Non-US Citizens

Figure out who you can talk to

Getting answers to questions about college can be tricky. Your parents might not want you to reveal your status at school, and guidance counselors may not know your state’s policies for undocumented students, Cabrera says. However, you can reach out to colleges directly with questions, and you don’t have to reveal your status. “Students should be able to ask a college if there’s someone to assist undocumented students and then be directed to the individual who can help them,” Barragan says. “They can always call and say, ‘my friend, who is undocumented…’ We who work at colleges understand that.”

Make sure your colleges of interest actively support undocumented students. “Look to see if their office for undocumented students has a website,” Barragan says. “Does the college use inclusive language, for example, on their financial aid website? Are they including information related to undocumented students paying for college, or are they just talking about the FAFSA? Do they help students feel comfortable?” 

Online resources provide another useful starting place. You can call any of these organizations for advice:

Look for scholarships

For students who live in “locked-out” states, Dream.US partners with more than 70 colleges in 16 states to offer scholarships to students with DACA or Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Check out the opportunity if you live in a locked-out state. 

Dreamers Roadmap and DACA Scholars are free apps to help you find scholarships. Also, search online for scholarships by your status, and be sure to check for local or regional scholarships in your area. Here are a few other places to start:

Use social media to stay informed

Barragan recommends following relevant organizations on social media to stay up-to-date on policy changes. “Follow accounts that provide information, resources, and the latest news. Follow Immigrants Rising, Dreamers Roadmap, DACA Scholars, and United We Dream,” she says.  

Related: Culture and Change in College

The college search isn’t easy for anyone, and you’ll need to do extra research to learn about your opportunities as an undocumented student. But with perseverance and the right outside help, you can make college a reality. Good luck! 

Start looking for colleges that will support you as an undocumented student with our College Search tool.

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