The College Process for Undocumented Students

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As the current senior class begins to learn the results of their college application process, January marked the kickoff of the college process for yet another group of seniors. For most students at Catlin Gabel this is a much anticipated, albeit stressful, but fairly straightforward process. But what would it be like for a student who is not a citizen of the United States?

According to the Immigration Policy Center, as of 2012, there are 1.8 million undocumented students under 18 in the U.S. Out of the 3.3 million students that graduate from high school in the U.S. yearly, about 65,000 of these students are defined as “undocumented” or a person born outside of the United States who is neither a citizen nor a legal resident, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 7.5% of these undocumented students continue on to secondary education, according to the College Board Advocacy.

A chart depicting the states that allow in-state tuition for undocumented students.(Photo: NBC Latino)
A chart depicting the states that allow in-state tuition for undocumented students.(Photo: NBC Latino)

These students have been guaranteed a public education in a United States until their senior year in high school under federal law. However, after grade twelve, there is no such guarantee, and in order to achieve a college education the student has to navigate through many legal and financial obstacles.

 Once a student is admitted to an institution there is yet another hurdle. Paying the tuition is almost always impossible for families of undocumented students, 40% of whom live below the poverty line, according to the Immigration Policy Center.

 In order to receive financial aid from public higher education institutions the beneficiary must be a U.S. citizen, an eligible noncitizen, or a permanent resident.

 To be considered an eligible noncitizen, according to the Federal Student Aid website, there are different categories that you must fall under. The categories are as follows:

  • You are either a United States national or have obtained either a Permanent Resident Card, Resident Alien Card or Alien Registration Card

  • You have a United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) Arrival-Departure Record identifying you are a refugee, asylum granted, Cuban-Haitian Entrant, Conditional entrant, Parolee

  • You or your parent is a holder of a T-visa (for human trafficking victims)

  • You are a “battered immigrant-qualified alien” (a victim of spousal abuse) or the child of a designated person

  • You are a citizen of Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, or the Republic of Palau

 Despite these requirements, some states allow in-state tuition rates for undocumented students although the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 outlaws it. This act is one of many examples of the conflict between federal and state laws over immigration.

 According to the SmartStudent Guide to Financial Aid, 25 states, including Oregon, have passed laws or are waiting on legislation allowing illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition benefits. By not questioning the student about their citizenship, this “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy is another way the states have avoided following federal law by inquiring about their attendance at graduation from an in-state high school rather than state residency to determine tuition benefit eligibility.

 However, if an undocumented student is not an eligible noncitizen there are still other options for aid, the most common being scholarship money.

 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) activists and many other organizations supporting illegal immigrant students’ education have put together lists of hundreds of scholarships available to undocumented students.

 The last barrier is a lack of information. Many students, parents, and high school counselors and even college admission officers are uninformed of the options available to undocumented students. Organizations hope to spread information about other alternatives in order to give the students as much help as they can.