CIANA Explains: Can Undocumented Students Go to College?


Astoria, NY- Each year, more than 65,000 students who have grown up in the United States but lack US citizenship graduate high school but only 5-10% of them are able to move on to college. When compared with the fact that about 70% of the nation’s high school graduates move on to college the year they graduate, it is obvious that undocumented students face many obstacles when accessing higher education. This post will attempt to shed light on these obstacles and how they thwart the dreams and potential of thousands of young and eager students.

Obstacles to Higher Education

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to accessing higher education for undocumented students is the lack of affordability, especially for low-income students. While the decision of the 1982 Supreme Court case, Plyler v Doe, guaranteed public K-12 education to all students, regardless of immigration status, this guarantee did not extend to post-secondary education. Despite the fact that the cost of attending college and attaining a degree has become increasingly more expensive over the past thirty years, undocumented students are still barred from accessing all forms of federal education benefits, including Federal Pell Grants and direct student loans. Furthermore, there are many states that deny in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, making attending public college or university much more expensive. While it is not entirely impossible for low-income undocumented students to be able to afford post-secondary education, there are many legal barriers in place that prevent undocumented students from accessing benefits offered to other students that make college more affordable.

High levels of poverty are also insurmountable hurdles to accessing higher education, which not only prevent undocumented students from being able to afford a post-secondary education, but also places tremendous pressure on undocumented youth to work long hours to help support themselves and their families. In many cases, undocumented youth play a large role in contributing to their household’s total income. The immense pressure placed on undocumented youth to support their families significantly reduces how many hours undocumented students can dedicate to their studies and college preparation - including participating in application-boosting extracurriculars and internships. These pressures often push them to end their educational journeys at high school or sooner.

Another obstacle that prevents undocumented students from accessing higher education is the lack of adequate mentoring and guidance counselors in high schools. Adequate amounts of guidance counselors in high school can be very beneficial and can serve as key motivators for undocumented students to apply to college. They can help educate undocumented students about the college application system, financial aid, scholarships, and opportunities that undocumented students in particular can access. Ultimately, a mentor relationship with a guidance counselor can create a safe space for undocumented students to talk about their legal status and ask for advice to navigate a complex system.

Do Tools Exist to Help Undocumented Students?

Access to post-secondary education is not entirely impossible for undocumented students. Although the problems raised in this post can only be properly solved through immigration and education reform, there are existing resources and opportunities, such as those made known through guidance counselors, help alleviate the costs of higher education and allow many undocumented students to hold on to their dreams. Below, we’ve included some helpful links to scholarships and college-access resources for undocumented students.

Scholarship Opportunities & College Access Resources:

The Dream.US National Scholarship - Application Deadline: February 28, 2019

CUNY Scholarships for DREAMers

Educational Resources from the Dream.US

Scholarships and Resources from Edvisors

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