Undocumented Students Face Increased Challenges with Access to Higher Education

By: Nicholas Dalessio

The rising cost of higher education in America is making it increasingly difficult for students to afford a college degree.  Most students are able to finance their education through student loans, including programs offered by federal and state governments.  However, access to these programs is not available to all who are attending colleges and universities in the United States:  Undocumented immigrants who enroll are not eligible for federal loans or Pell grants.  To expand educational opportunities for undocumented students, many states have launched loan programs that allow them access to student loans and other forms of financial aid to cover education costs and living expenses.

California is one state leading the charge in the effort to provide financial aid to undocumented students.  With new programs like the California Dream Act and the California Dream Loan Program, undocumented students have the chance to take advantage of college funding provided by the state.  Even with these programs in place, only 67 percent of the grants awarded last year to undocumented students were used.  Lupita Cortez Alcala, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission stated that the Commission is “working with higher education institutions and students to find out why that is and how to ensure that the students who are awarded the grants enroll and take advantage of them.”  One of the main issues she points to is, even with the grants, without access to other sources of funding, undocumented students do not have enough to cover the cost of tuition and other expenses.  Students also have to pay for the cost of living on or near campus, commuting expenses and food, along with books and other supplies.  Due to this large financial burden, being undocumented, low-income, and a first generation immigrant in the United States, these students are either not attending, or they are taking time off from school to raise the necessary funds for attendance.

Tuition inequality adds an additional layer to this problem.  Some states have previously passed tuition equality measures to implement in-state tuition rates for undocumented students, while others have not. As tuition equality legislation is passed in different states, there remains confusion among administrators and staff on how to implement the new laws and policies, requiring students to look outside of the college or university for help to access these programs.  The lack of knowledge by those advisors creates additional confusion in the complexities of assisting undocumented students, including some schools telling students that they do not qualify for in-state tuition and mislabeling them as international students.

Problems continue for undocumented students even after they are accepted and secure financial assistance.  Situations arise to remind them of how their immigrant status makes them different than other students on campus, including viewpoints in class discussion displaying anti-immigrant sentiments, job and career fairs held by employers who only hire U.S. citizens, and dealing with staff and administrators who do not understand the operation of the new state programs.  With the multiple challenges that they must face, undocumented students make many sacrifices to gain access to higher education; from being admitted, securing financial aid and having the continued resources for each semester, along with the possibility that they or one of their family members will be deported.  For these reasons, a significant number of undocumented students simply are unable to take advantage of in-state tuition rates and financial aid provided by the state.


Monica Harvin, Why Are Undocumented Students Leaving In-State Tuition and Financial Aid Unclaimed?, GOODCALL, February 24, 2016.

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