How Immigrants Without Legal Status Can Pay for College

More than 1 million immigrant children without legal status reportedly live in the United States. Roughly 65,000 graduate from high school each year, but experts estimate that fewer than 6,500 go on to attend college.

Two major barriers -- a lack of information and assistance -- often prevent immigrant teens without legal permission from continuing their education, says Laura Bohorquez, coordinator of the DREAM Educational Empowerment Program at United We Dream, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy organization.

"Unfortunately, we're still getting a lot of questions from students thinking that because they're undocumented, they can't access higher education," Bohorquez says. Students without legal status have options, though, including laws at the state level that allow some noncitizens to receive in-state tuition at state colleges and universities, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order issued by President Barack Obama that gives some young immigrants -- often referred to as DREAMers -- temporary resident status and a pathway to work legally.

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In-State Tuition and Financial Aid

Eighteen states, including Colorado, Maryland and Oregon, allow teens without legal status to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities, provided they meet certain requirements. Students living in California, Texas, New Mexico, Minnesota and Washington are also eligible for state-based financial aid, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The conditions of these laws vary, but most stipulate that students must have lived in the state for a minimum number of years and have graduated from high school or received their GED in the state.

Even with these policies in place, many immigrant students don't understand the financial aid process, Bohorquez says.

In Texas, for example, students must fill out the Texas Application for State Financial Aid. But many don't know the form exists, even though the state has been giving out financial aid for nearly a decade, Bohorquez adds.

[Check out scholarships for immigrant students.]

Teachers, high school counselors and college financial aid offices aren't always helpful for immigrant students without legal residency, says Alejandra Rincon, author of "Undocumented Students and Higher Education: Si Se Puede."

It's important for students to be informed and persistent, she says.

"Bottom line, if they are in a state that has in-state tuition, the key thing is to not take no for an answer," Rincon says. "If they know that the law allows for them to go to college, then they have that to back them up."

Students can seek help from campus groups and organizations such as United We Dream and Educators for Fair Consideration, which both publish resources for students without legal status. The College Board also has a "Repository of Resources for Undocumented Students," which Rincon authored, that includes contact information for officials at community colleges, nonprofit organizations and other groups offering assistance to students who don't have citizenship.


Federal dollars are out of reach for students in the country illegally, but scholarship dollars are not.

TheDream.US, a $32 million scholarship fund established in February 2014, awards scholarships of up to $25,000 to immigrant students with temporary resident status.

State scholarship programs, such as the Illinois Dream Fund, and private scholarship funds also exist. Scholarships A-Z, a nonprofit based in Arizona, curates scholarships open to students without legal status, sorted by application deadline. The database includes contact information and requirements for each scholarship so students can get a snapshot of all the necessary information in one place.

Some scholarship applications ask students to enter a Social Security number, which can frighten away some applicants without legal status, says Bohorquez.

"We tell our students, 'Don't be afraid to ask if the Social Security number is something they need for the application,'" she says. "We're finding that a lot of scholarships just keep it [on the application] because it's been there for years."


Students who have temporary resident status are eligible to work legally if they have a work permit. These students typically have access to higher-paying jobs and can use the income to help fund their education.

Most colleges have payment plans, so students can pay tuition in installments, Bohorquez says. Many institutions also offer small loans that students can use to pay for part of their tuition, books or other expenses.

[Learn how to estimate a college's net price.]

Students unable to legally work in the U.S. many still be able to land a job on campus and have their wages applied directly to fees, housing and other expenses billed by the college, says Bohorquez, who worked as a teaching assistant while earning her master's at Loyola University Chicago.

Bohorquez could not legally receive a paycheck for her stipend, so instead the university applied it directly to her housing, student fees and books. Her tuition was waived as part of her assistantship.

None of that would have happened if she didn't ask, though.

"It might be scary to share your status," Bohorquez says. "But if you find someone to be your champion, they will help you in terms of advocacy for financial aid."

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.