Can undocumented students go to college? Yes.
No federal law prohibits the admission of undocumented students to U.S. colleges.
But misinformation is vast — including among high school counselors and college admissions officers.
When Selene Vences, an activist for undocumented young people in New Mexico, held focus groups in cities around the state, she learned that firsthand.
“Every single student told me that at least one time they’d been told that undocumented students couldn’t go to college or that there was no financial aid available,” Vences said.
The tangle of state laws — and sometimes varying admission policies at colleges — creates confusion and an unequal situation from state to state. Some policies around financial aid and tuition can create huge barriers to attending college.
Of the 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools each year, only about 5 to 10 percent go on to college, and a low percentage of those graduate from college, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
State policies are not the same
Undocumented students can get some form of state financial aid in six states: California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Washington, according to United We Dream, a national advocacy group for immigrant youth.
In these states and 13 others, undocumented students pay in-state tuition rates, instead of the much higher out-of-state tuition, according to the organization.
On the other end of the spectrum are Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia. The first two prohibit undocumented students from attending any state college, while Georgia prohibits them from the three most selective public colleges. Other states, notably Arizona and Indiana, specifically prohibit in-state tuition rates.
The message to undocumented students is: “We don’t really care about you,” Vences said. She is an education justice coordinator for New Mexico Dream Team, an affiliate of United We Dream.
Training students and educators
As a result of the focus groups she led, Vences decided to organize trainings that brought together undocumented students and educators in New Mexico. Called Dream Zone, the trainings also challenge racism on campuses and support a safer campus climate for undocumented students.
Specific supports are important, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s “Resource Guide for Supporting Undocumented Youth.”
Many undocumented students are the first in their family to go to college, so a positive climate and culturally competent faculty make a difference to them, according to the guide.
United We Dream also provides a toolkit for educators.