How Undocumented Students Can Apply to College

Madison Baker  | 

Yes, you can go to college if you’re an undocumented student. There are no federal, state, or other laws that prohibit admission to either private or public colleges in the United States. Because there are no laws to the contrary, you are legally free to pursue a college education in the U.S., regardless of your immigration status.

The process of applying to college, though, can differ for undocumented students. There are legal considerations you have to take into account, and financial barriers that can make paying for school more difficult. You’ll also likely need to put more time into researching universities than a documented student or citizen, as individual institutions may have differing policies.

But despite the obstacles you might face, college is still an attainable goal; you simply have to prepare yourself for those obstacles and learn about your options. Here’s what you need to know to apply to college as an undocumented student.

1. Check School Admission Policies for Undocumented Students

Though there are no federal laws that prohibit undocumented students from applying to college, states and universities may have their own admissions policies regarding citizenship. Some schools and states are more welcoming to undocumented students, while others may simply reject you outright because of your immigration status.

The University System of Georgia, for example, prohibits undocumented immigrants from attending any of the 26 universities under their jurisdiction. So while you couldn’t attend one of those schools, you could still apply to private universities and public colleges in Georgia that are not a part of that system.

Do thorough research on the various colleges that accept undocumented students. Your immigration status does put limitations on the number of colleges you can attend, but there are thousands of schools in the U.S. to choose from. There are already dozens of factors to consider when selecting a college, such as degree program and its location; try to think of the school’s admissions policy on undocumented students as simply another thing to think about in your research.

2. Research Tuition Policies and Financial Aid Options

As an undocumented student, your options for financial aid are more limited than other students’ will be. All undocumented citizens are ineligible for federal college aid, which makes up the bulk of the financial assistance that students typically receive. You need a Social Security Number to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which puts more restrictions on how you can search for aid. Still, even without filling out the FAFSA, there are several ways that you can finance your education as an undocumented student.

You can always look for aid at the state or college level. Six states currently offer financial aid to undocumented students. Whether or not your state offers aid, you should also look into the financial policies at individual colleges, as they might be able to provide additional assistance.

Reach out to a financial advisor at the universities you’re interested in attending to find out more about their policies. They are the experts and will be able to offer advice about your specific situation. If you live in a state that offers state-issued aid, they may also be able to help you apply for it. Financial advisors may also be able to direct you to relevant scholarship or grant information.

3. Familiarize Yourself With Helpful Resources for Undocumented Student

The laws surrounding undocumented citizens in the U.S. are in constant flux. Things can change quickly and abruptly. You have to be prepared for those changes and how they might affect your college plans.

Further, to keep yourself safe, it’s important to know your rights, as well as what resources are available to you. See the following groups and organizations that can provide you with helpful information and assistance:

4. Apply for the Appropriate Visas

You should also consider whether or not you need or want to apply for a visa. Some colleges require all non-residents to have a student visa, while others may not. Be sure to check what a college requires before you apply, as you don’t want to waste your time applying to a school that will reject you for not having a visa.

Obtaining a student visa might be difficult, as the U.S. State Department requires applicants to prove they have a permanent home abroad that they intend to return to after completing their studies. If you want to work while going to school, you may need to get an immigration visa or other documentation in order to legally work in the U.S.

An important note: if applying for a visa isn’t required for college, if you don’t know whether or not you quality for one, or if it might put you or your family at risk, then don’t worry about applying for a visa. Instead, focus on applying to schools that don’t require you to have a visa or to disclose your citizenship status.

5. Apply for College and Fill Out FAFSA

The actual process of filling out college applications is the same for all students. Depending on the school, you’ll need to provide your high school grades, test scores, extra curricular activities, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay. Again, make sure the colleges you submit applications to will accept undocumented students before filling anything out; you only want to spend time on schools that welcome students regardless of their immigration status.

During the application process, you should also begin seriously applying for financial aid and scholarships. If you are eligible to fill out the FAFSA, do so; if not, you can still apply for college- or state-issued aid. Another way you can finance college is by applying for scholarships. There are a number of scholarships available specifically to undocumented students, in addition to other scholarships that you might be qualified for.

Some scholarships require applicants to write personal essays or submit letters of recommendation, and the more time you give yourself to thoughtfully complete your scholarship applications, the better.

How Many Undocumented Students Are in Higher Education?

Going through the college application process as an undocumented student can be isolating and stressful. However, you should know that you aren’t alone. There are roughly 11 million undocumented people living in the United States, and it’s estimated that about two million of those people are under the age of 18. One study found that about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year, but only five to 10 percent of them continue on to higher education.

That may not seem like many students; after all, 10 percent of 65,000 translates to about 6,500 undocumented college students. Between the thousands of universities in the country, as well as online education options, you might wonder if you’ll ever encounter another student who’s had the same experience as you. Be sure to consult your school’s multicultural or undocumented student centers to meet other students who may be dealing with some of the same situations you are.

Undocumented Students Statistics

Here are some additional statistics about undocumented students to better illustrate their presence in the U.S. today:

  • The majority of undocumented students come from Mexico and Central America. Roughly 6.7 million undocumented immigrants came from Mexico alone in 2012.
  • Many undocumented students are considered to be “1.5 generation immigrants” because most of them were born in their home country and came to the U.S. with their family members at a very young age
  • About 28 percent of undocumented students choose to major in a STEM subject.
  • Undocumented students, particularly women, experience higher levels of anxiety than the general student population.
  • Over 90 percent of undocumented students claimed they would become American citizens if given the opportunity.

There are many common misconceptions about undocumented students in the U.S., such as that they can go to college for free, or that it’s illegal for them to attend school at all. Despite the legal and financial complications, applying to and attending college as an undocumented student isn’t all that different from the experience of thousands of other high school students. As long as you take some extra time to plan and research your options, you can get a college education in the U.S., regardless of your documentation status.


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This post was updated March 5, 2019. It was originally published March 5, 2019.