How to Apply to College as an Undocumented Student

Growing up, many undocumented students face the harsh reality that higher education might be out of reach for them due to a lack of clear information and financial and legal concerns. However, with the right knowledge and resources, pursuing a college education is not only possible but can also lead to fulfilling career opportunities.

In this article, we will provide step-by-step advice on what undocumented students need to know. From understanding the role of DACA in college admissions to exploring financial aid options for undocumented students. Whether you’re an undocumented student yourself or a counselor supporting such students, this guide will equip you with the knowledge and resources to successfully navigate the college application process.

What is an Undocumented Student?

An undocumented student is a foreign-born individual who doesn’t have a legal status in the United States. This can include students who entered the country without inspection or overstayed their visas. Despite their undocumented status, many of these students have lived in the U.S. for a significant portion of their lives and consider it their home.

Can Undocumented Students Apply to College?

Yes, undocumented students can apply to college. There are no federal or state laws that prohibit undocumented students from applying to, enrolling in, or graduating from public or private colleges or universities. A significant number of colleges and universities admit undocumented students. However, policies vary from one institution to another, so it’s important for students to research each school’s policies.

DACA and College Admissions

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a policy that provides temporary relief from deportation and work authorization for certain undocumented individuals who came to the United States as children. DACA status can play a significant role in the admissions process. For instance, some colleges and universities may consider DACA students as domestic students, which can open up more opportunities for in-state tuition and financial aid.

However, it’s important to note that DACA students are not qualified for federal financial aid. Despite this, there are many scholarships for undocumented students, including those with DACA status.

The College Application Process for Undocumented Students

The college application process can be daunting for any high school student, but it can be particularly challenging for undocumented students. However, it’s important to know that undocumented students can apply to college. While the process may be more complex due to their status, many colleges and universities are committed to supporting all students, regardless of their immigration status.

When applying to colleges and universities, undocumented students may face unique challenges. For instance, some schools may classify undocumented students as international students, which can affect tuition rates and financial aid opportunities. Additionally, the application may ask for a social security number, which many undocumented individuals do not have. However, many schools will allow students to leave this field blank or enter a series of zeroes.

College Search: Finding the Right Fit

The first step in the college planning process is the college search. Undocumented students can use the same resources as other college students to find a college that fits their needs. However, they should also consider how schools will treat undocumented students. Some colleges and universities often have resources specifically for undocumented and DACA students, including admissions counselors who are knowledgeable regarding undocumented students.

The Common Application

The Common Application is a widely used college application that many schools accept. It does not require applicants to provide a social security number, which means undocumented applicants can use it. However, undocumented students cannot apply for federal student aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Paying for College as an Undocumented Student

Paying for college can be a significant hurdle for undocumented students. As mentioned earlier, undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial aid. However, some states offer state financial aid to undocumented students. Additionally, some colleges and universities offer financial aid to undocumented students.

In-state tuition can make college more affordable for undocumented students. Some states allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. However, policies vary by state and institution.

Are undocumented students eligible for federal financial aid?

No, undocumented students, including DACA recipients, are not eligible for federal financial aid. This includes all federal grants, loans, and work-study programs. However, some states offer state financial aid for undocumented students. These opportunities can make a significant difference in whether these students can afford to go to college. It’s important to check the specific laws and restrictions on undocumented students in your state.

What types of financial aid are available for undocumented students?

While undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial aid, they may still qualify for other types of aid. Here are some options:

  1. State Aid: Some states offer financial aid to undocumented students. These programs vary by state, so it’s important to research the specific requirements in your state.
  2. Institutional Aid: Many colleges and universities offer their own financial aid packages, which can include grants, scholarships, and work-study opportunities. Some institutions have specific funds set aside for undocumented students.
  3. Private Scholarships: There are numerous private scholarships available specifically for undocumented students. These scholarships are funded by private organizations, individuals, and foundations, and they do not require U.S. citizenship or legal residency.

How can undocumented students pay for college without federal aid?

Though undocumented students cannot apply for federal aid, there are many opportunities for undocumented students looking to fund their studies. Here are some strategies:

  1. Personal Savings: Saving money from part-time or summer jobs can help cover some college expenses.
  2. Scholarships: Many organizations offer scholarships for undocumented students. These scholarships can help cover the cost of tuition, books, and other expenses. It’s worth spending time researching these opportunities and applying to as many as possible.
  3. State or Institutional Aid: Check if your state or college offers financial aid to undocumented students. This can significantly reduce the cost of tuition.
  4. Private Loans: While federal loans are not an option, some private banks and lenders do offer loans to undocumented students. However, these often require a creditworthy cosigner and may have higher interest rates.
  5. Payment Plans: Some colleges offer payment plans that allow you to pay tuition in installments rather than in one lump sum.
  6. Work-Study or Part-Time Jobs: If you have work authorization (such as through DACA), you can earn money through work-study programs or part-time jobs.

Remember, every bit helps. Even small scholarships can add up and reduce the amount you need to pay out-of-pocket or borrow in loans. It’s important to start planning early and explore all options. Don’t be discouraged by the challenges, there are resources available to help you achieve your educational goals.

How to Find the Right College for Undocumented Students

Choosing the right college is a significant decision for any student, and for undocumented students, this process can come with its own unique set of considerations. Here are some factors that undocumented students should consider when choosing a college:

Financial Aid Policies

One of the first things to look at is the college’s financial aid policies. Since undocumented students cannot receive federal financial aid, it’s important to find schools that offer other forms of financial assistance. Some colleges and universities offer institutional aid or scholarships specifically for undocumented students. Additionally, some states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities, which can significantly reduce the cost of attendance.

Support for Undocumented Students

Another crucial factor is the level of support the college provides for undocumented students. This can include counseling services, legal resources, and academic advising. Some colleges have an Undocumented Student Center or a designated staff member who specializes in supporting undocumented students. These resources can provide valuable guidance and assistance throughout the college experience.

School’s Attitude Towards Immigrants

The school’s overall attitude towards immigrants can also play a big role in creating a welcoming and inclusive environment. This can be reflected in the school’s policies, student body, campus culture, and the resources it provides for immigrant students. Researching the school’s mission statement, diversity initiatives, and student organizations can give you a sense of the school’s values and commitment to supporting all students, regardless of their immigration status.

Academic Programs and Opportunities

Finally, it’s important to choose a school that offers the academic programs and opportunities that align with the student’s career goals. Undocumented students, like all students, should consider their academic interests and career aspirations when choosing your school. Look at the school’s course offerings, majors, internships, research opportunities, and job placement rates in your field of interest.

Remember, choosing a college is a personal decision, and what works for one person might not work for another. It’s important to take the time to research and visit different colleges, ask questions, and weigh your options.

Resources for Undocumented Students

Navigating the college application process can be a daunting task, especially for undocumented students who may face additional challenges due to their immigration status. Fortunately, there are numerous resources available that can provide valuable information and assistance.

College Access Programs

College access programs aim to help students from underrepresented backgrounds, including undocumented students, navigate the college application process. These programs often provide services such as college counseling, assistance with college applications and financial aid forms, and college visits. Some well-known programs include the College Advising Corps and the National College Attainment Network.

Immigrant Rights Organizations

Immigrant rights organizations advocate for the rights of immigrants, including undocumented students. They often provide resources such as legal information, scholarship databases, and guides to college for undocumented students. Examples of these organizations include the National Immigration Law Center and United We Dream.

School Counselors

Some colleges and universities often have resources specifically for undocumented and DACA students, including college admissions counselors who are knowledgeable regarding undocumented students. School counselors can be a valuable resource for undocumented students. They can provide information about the college application process, offer emotional support, and connect students with other resources. It’s important for undocumented students to communicate with their school counselors about their needs and concerns.

Undocumented Student Centers

Some colleges and universities have Undocumented Student Centers or similar offices that provide support and resources specifically for undocumented students. These centers may offer services such as academic advising, legal consultations, and mental health counseling. They can also connect students with on-campus and community resources.

Online Resources

There are also numerous online resources available to help undocumented students navigate the college application process. Websites like The College Board and Educators for Fair Consideration offer guides, toolkits, and other resources specifically designed for undocumented students.

These resources can provide valuable information and assistance, helping undocumented students understand their rights, find financial aid, and successfully navigate the college application process. It’s important for undocumented students to reach out for help and utilize these resources. 

Tips for Undocumented High School Students Applying to College

1. Reach Out to the University’s Center or Program for Undocumented Students

Undocumented students should connect with the university’s center or program specifically designed to support them. These centers can provide valuable information about the application process and answer questions related to financial aid.

Additionally, they serve as a resource and community for undocumented students throughout their college journey.

2. Understand How Your Status Affects the Application Process

Different universities have varying policies regarding the treatment of undocumented students during the application process. Some may consider undocumented students as domestic applicants, while others treat them as international students.

It is crucial to contact each school you plan to apply to and learn how they handle applications from undocumented students to understand their financial aid policies.

3. Consider the Campus Environment and Surrounding Community

When choosing an institution, it is essential to feel comfortable and safe not only on campus but also in the surrounding town or city.

Research the community and assess its positive social climate and the availability of services for undocumented individuals. Feeling supported and welcomed in your college environment is key to a successful college experience.

4. Get Involved with College Access Programs in High School

High school students should take advantage of college access programs that offer college admission counseling and test preparation courses. These programs can help students navigate the college application process and provide vital resources. Reach out to your teachers, local colleges, or your local YMCA chapter to find CA programs in your area.

5. Embrace Your Identity and Share Your Story

Many undocumented students fear revealing their immigration status during the college application process. However, embracing your identity can be powerful and compelling.

Share your story and experiences in your application essay, as it may help admissions officers understand your unique perspective and background.

6. Seek Private Scholarships

Undocumented students can start looking for private scholarships early in their senior year of high school. Private scholarships can cover not only tuition but also discretionary costs like meals, housing, transportation, and books.

Check with civic organizations in your hometown and your prospective college campus for available scholarships.

7. Inquire About Institutional Aid

While undocumented students cannot receive federal financial aid, they may be eligible for institutional aid offered by colleges and universities.

Some states may also provide financial aid for undocumented students. Contact admissions counselors and financial aid offices to inquire about the specific policies and opportunities available at each institution.

8. Ask About Fee Waivers for Applicants with Financial Need

Many colleges have policies that waive application fees for students with financial need, including undocumented students.

Don’t assume that every school will be unwilling to provide financial assistance. Reach out to the admissions office to inquire about fee waivers and explore opportunities to save on your college application expenses.

9. Consider Applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, often referred to as DACA, provides certain protections for undocumented individuals who were brought to the United States as children. This can impact whether undocumented students can access certain resources or face restrictions, such as restricting students from attending public colleges.

Seek assistance to ensure accurate completion of the DACA application and explore organizations like United We Dream for guidance.

10. Stay Informed About Policy Changes

Laws and policies affecting undocumented immigrants are subject to change. It is crucial for undocumented students to stay informed about the current landscape and any updates that may affect their educational journey. Seek reliable sources of information and verify any questions or concerns with trusted advisors.



Though the path to college may seem challenging for undocumented students, it’s important to remember that many have successfully enrolled in college before. With careful planning, the right resources, and a supportive community, undocumented students can get the right tools to pursue their college career and achieve their dreams. Attending college is still an attainable goal and we hope that this guide will help you pick the college choice that’s right for you.

Also read: How to Proofread Your College Application Essay Like a Pro: 5 Tips

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