No federal or state law prohibits the admission of undocumented immigrants to U.S. colleges, public or private. Due to the 1982 Plyler v. Doe U.S. Supreme Court decision, states are required to provide all students with K-12 public education, regardless of students’ immigration status.
However, what do immigration laws say about a college or university education? If you’re unsure about your post-high school education options, contact the experienced immigration lawyers at Florida Immigration Law Counsel for your initial consultation today.
According to College Board, there are an estimated 65,000 undocumented students — meaning they were born abroad and are not U.S. citizens or legal residents — who graduate from U.S. high schools each year. However, these students face special obstacles when they want to pursue higher education.
Federal and state laws do not require students to prove their citizenship to enter U.S. higher education institutions but policies on admitting undocumented students vary. Schools can refuse admission to undocumented students or require proof of citizenship, but this is not a law.
In some states and institutions, undocumented students are treated like foreign students. However, this could mean that they’re ineligible for financial aid from the state and the lower tuition charged to residents. For some students, this puts their dreams of attending university in the states just out of reach.
There is some hope for these types of students because, under the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act introduced by the 112th Congress, US legislation would permit undocumented students to begin a six-year process leading to permanent legal status if they:
- Graduate from a community college
- Complete at least two years toward a four-year degree
- Serve at least two years in the U.S. military.
If they’re able to do this, then these individuals would qualify for in-state tuition costs. If you’re unsure about what’s your best path for attending college as an undocumented student, speak with an immigration attorney. They can use their expertise and experience to help get you on the path to higher education in the U.S.
Undocumented Students and Financial Aid
It’s illegal for undocumented students to receive any federally funded student financial aid, including loans, grants, scholarships, or work-study money. Some states do grant eligibility for state financial aid to undocumented students who qualify for in-state tuition.
Many private scholarship funds and foundations require applicants to be U.S. citizens or legal residents, but some do not. Private institutions can be a good option for undocumented students that can afford them because they set their financial aid policies. Some private universities are willing to give scholarships and aid to undocumented students.
States That Allow Undocumented Students
The Supreme Court’s decision to allow undocumented students to go to K-12 school does not apply to higher education. Section 505 of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) states, “an alien who is not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible based on residence within a State (or a political subdivision) for any postsecondary education benefit unless a citizen or national of the United States is eligible for such a benefit (in no less an amount, duration, and scope) without regard to whether the citizen or national is such a resident.”
Since 2001, 18 states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma*, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin—have passed legislation extending in-state tuition rates to undocumented students who meet specific requirements.
Barriers Undocumented Students Face
Undocumented immigrants can attend college in the U.S. but often encounter legal and financial barriers. Here are some of the most common barriers that undocumented students face:
- They do not qualify for any form of federal aid, which means they are limited to private scholarships, grants, and institutional or state-level aid.
- Many schools choose to reject applications from undocumented immigrants, especially public schools that disqualify undocumented students from paying in-state tuition rates.
- The threat of deportation disincentivizes colleges from admitting undocumented students.
- Undocumented students must attend “sanctuary schools” rather than choosing a school based on academic considerations.
- The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could reinstitute policies that would not allow international students to remain in the U.S. if schools went online.
- The CARES act, which helps keep many students afloat during the pandemic, excludes undocumented students from receiving emergency aid.
- Language barriers could also be a problem for those interested in attending online education programs.
Considerations for Undocumented Youth
If you are an undocumented student, a degree from a four-year college might seem unattainable. However, there are options, and an immigration attorney can help you weigh those options and decide which route is best for you.
One of the best things an undocumented student can do when evaluating schools is to give preference to the institutions and states that are more accepting of your undocumented status. Eighteen states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates, and these states will more likely have policies that favor undocumented students. Immigration law professionals also recommend:
- Choose locations that serve your population. Give strong consideration to institutions that have historically served your particular faith group or underserved population. Institutions with experience advocating for your minority group often work to make amenities available to these demographics.
- Consider studying at an Online College. Online programs offer convenience and cost less than on-campus degrees. Attending an online college also reduces the risks of undocumented students running into immigration enforcement.
- Look for sanctuary campuses. These colleges and universities are typically safe spaces for undocumented students. Sanctuary campuses provide relief from the anxiety about institutions and individuals sharing their immigration status with authorities or being attacked by campus police enforcing immigration law.
Paying For College as an Undocumented Student
Immigrant students ordinarily pay for college using scholarships tailored specifically to undocumented, first-generation, low-income, or other high-need students. Undocumented students can pursue scholarships from certain states, private colleges, nonprofits, and other organizations.
Unfortunately, undocumented students do not qualify for federal student aid. However, there are other options available to you. That’s why it could be vital for you to speak with an undocumented student attorney at Florida Immigration Law Counsel about the different universities and financial aid options available to you.
Most states and colleges use the information collected on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA® ) to determine whether you are eligible for aid. If you have a Social Security number, you may complete the FAFSA, and we encourage you to do so at fafsa.gov.
However, immigration education experts recommend checking with your high school counselor or your college or career school financial aid office. You can see what types of financial aid you may be eligible to receive and whether completing the FAFSA is the way to apply for that aid.
If you’re ineligible for federal or state aid, funds could be available for international students through other avenues. Some of the schools you’re interested in may have an international office that you can contact to discuss additional resources available to individuals like you.
It can also prove very beneficial to speak with a financial aid officer or counselor at the perspective institution you’d like to attend because they will know what resources may be available to you that you haven’t considered.
Information for International and Undocumented Students Wishing to Attend College in Florida
Studying in the United States can be a serious and cumbersome undertaking. Deciding how you pay for it will be one of the toughest obstacles to overcome but there are additional student aid resources for international and undocumented students, and more are becoming available each day.
Florida Undocumented Student Laws
HB851 is a bill signed into law in 2014 by Governor Rick Scott, with bipartisan support. HB851 lets undocumented students be classified as non-Florida residents. This bill gives certain undocumented students an out-of-state waiver allowing them to receive tuition fee pricing equivalent to in-state Florida residents.
Consult with an Undocumented Student Attorney Today
Many undocumented youths and their families are unaware of all of the resources available to them. Finding and taking advantage of those recourses can be equally challenging. That’s why it is important to speak with an immigration law professional about your options.
The adept immigration law professionals at Florida Immigration Law Counsel have experience dealing with ICE, and other immigration legal services. They also have awareness of the particular issues that undocumented students face.
Although attending college in the U.S. is a big step it doesn’t guarantee a path to citizenship or permanent residency. However, it can be one of the pillars of your residency. Utilizing the right programs and resources, especially when you’re an undocumented or international student, can save you lots of time, energy, and headaches.
Our skillful immigration law attorneys can help you overcome the barriers that many face when trying to attend US universities as an undocumented youth. Set up an initial consultation with us today and start your journey to attending college in the states today.