Do Dreamers and Undocumented Students Get Free College?

Daniel Bagley
Girl in college library, holding a blue spiral notebook, with her group mates in background, out of focus.

Can illegal immigrants go to college for free? The short answer is no. DACA “Dreamers” and undocumented students have to pay for college, get scholarships, or get some other form of financial aid just like everyone else. The idea that DACA recipients get free college is a myth.

DACA or no, everyone in America has the right to pursue higher education, no matter their legal status. Whether they’re able to receive any sort of financial aid depends on both federal and state laws and policies, as well as the policies of the private educational institutions to which they apply. Let’s examine the issue further.

Table of Contents

Can You Be An Illegal Immigrant and Go to College?

You can be an illegal immigrant and still go to college. To understand how this could work, consider the case of Chicago’s Star Scholarship program, which has seen a number of undocumented immigrants attending community college for free. “Wait a minute,” you say, “doesn’t that contradict the assertion from earlier — that illegal immigrants can’t go to college for free?” In a sense, it does and in another sense, it doesn’t; Chicago’s case is unique.

The city’s Star Scholarship program awards free community college scholarships to public school students who graduate high school with a B average and pass a college entrance exam. In 2017 and 2018, 21 percent of the program’s scholarship winners were undocumented immigrants. In creating the program, the city insisted that undocumented immigrants students should also be able to qualify for the scholarship.

Illinois is an example of a state that will give in-state tuition and financial aid to DACA Dreamers. Other states, such as Georgia and Arizona, make sure Dreamers have to pay more by barring them from qualifying for in-state tuition. A total of 20 states have paved the way for Dreamers to receive some sort of financial aid, either by state legislative action through the public education system. The other 30 do not qualify Dreamers for financial aid. Alabama and South Carolina are examples of states that don’t allow Dreamers to attend public colleges at all.   

There’s another score to settle here: DACA law means young undocumented immigrants don’t technically have illegal status. Children who immigrated illegally to the US before the age of 16 are temporarily exempt from deportation. When a DACA student goes to college, it’s not an example of an illegal immigrant going to college; it’s an example of a temporarily legal immigrant lawfully accessing an institution of higher education. The government is deferring a decision on deportation until Congress signs a comprehensive immigration reform bill into law, but it still has no effect on the cost for these students.

Can DACA and Undocumented Students Apply to FAFSA or Federal Aid?

Dreamers and undocumented students can attempt to apply for FAFSA or federal aid, but won’t receive it. To qualify for federal aid, an immigrant student must have citizen status, meaning they have a green card, or that the US is granting them asylum. The government gives immigrants with green cards or asylum status a Social Security Number (SSN), which allow them to file the FAFSA.  

The FAFSA doesn’t ask applicants about their parents’ immigrant status because that has nothing to do with the students’ educational career. If Dreamers want financial aid, they have to get it from the state or from a scholarship or grant.  

How Do Undocumented and DACA Students Pay for College?

Dreamers and undocumented students have to use their own funds, or the funding they may receive through other avenues besides federal aid. Disregarding the FAFSA, there are multiple ways to pay for school. Personal loans, private grants, and scholarships are the primary go-tos for Dreamers.

Tuition Costs for Undocumented Students

As with all college applicants, tuition costs for public institutions will depend on whether the undocumented student qualifies for in-state tuition. The states that offer in-state tuition to undocumented students, through “tuition equity” laws or policies, are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, and Washington.

What is DACA and the DREAM Act?

DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Although people call DACA recipients “Dreamers,” DACA is different than the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act). The term “Dreamer” does come from the DREAM Act, the intent of which was to “allow only the best and brightest young people to earn their legal status after a rigorous and lengthy process.” Members of Congress have been trying to pass different versions of the DREAM Act since 2001, and the most recent version was released in 2017. At its core, the intent of the DREAM Act was to give qualifying illegal immigrants under the age of 18 a path to citizenship.

President Barack Obama created the DACA program in 2012 because Congress failed to pass multiple versions of the DREAM Act. In his statement on the matter, Obama said that DACA is “a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people.”  

You qualify for DACA if you:

  • Were younger than 31 on June 15, 2012 (which is when Obama created the program) and you were an illegal immigrant on that date;
  • Immigrated to America before turning 16;
  • Have lived in America since June 15, 2007;
  • Are attending school, have graduated from high school or attained a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the Army or Coast Guard;
  • Have not been convicted of a felony, serious misdemeanor, or three misdemeanors;  

DACA recipients are covered for two years, after which they must reapply.

The Trump administration announced the end of DACA in September 2017. However, the courts have continually blocked Trump’s mandate. As of February 2019, DACA is still in effect, meaning recipients can legally work and go to school.   

What States Have Their Own Dream Act?

Since 2001, 17 states have enacted their own version of the DREAM Act. Of these states, which include California, Oregon, and New Jersey, New York State and Washington State are the most recent to pass a Dream Act. State Dream Acts aren’t paths to citizenship, which only the Federal government can grant; rather, they’re paths to higher education.

How Many Undocumented Students and DACA Students Are There in the United States?

As of July 31, 2018, there were 703,890 DACA recipients in the US. Of those, an estimated 97 percent are attending school or working. There are a total of 3.6 million undocumented immigrants classified as Dreamers living in the US, but there’s no data on how many are attending school.

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