The issue of undocumented immigrants and undocumented children has hardly been out of the news these past few years. The hot topic affects everyone from immigrants themselves to policymakers and US citizens. Undocumented immigrants have typically entered the United States without permission and have no legal right to remain in the country. Undocumented immigrants could be people with expired visas or paperwork, or immigrants in deportation procedure.

Undocumented students are normally brought by parents or caregivers to America when they are very young. These children complete their schooling in the US and many young undocumented students are unaware of their status. It’s only when graduating high school that many find out that they do not automatically have the permission to pass into college.

immigrant student

How Many Undocumented Students Are in the US?

According to information from the University of Texas at Austin, in 2012 there were around 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in America, and over 2.2 million undocumented students. Because of the issues surrounding attendance at colleges in America without legal documentation, only around 5 to 10 percent of undocumented students at high school graduate and go on to college in the US (National Immigration Law Center).

What is the Impact of Being Undocumented?

It’s tough being an undocumented student. While a high school education up until grade 12 is available for undocumented students in the US, there are a number of legal and economic barriers for undocumented students to higher education. As a result, undocumented students do not enjoy the same educational opportunities, and therefore social and economic opportunities, as US citizens. Undocumented students find it more difficult to progress with their education in institutions in the US and therefore cannot access the high-quality education that is available to US citizens and residents.

College Admission for Undocumented Students

It is wrongly assumed by many that undocumented students are not legally allowed to attend a US college. In actual fact there is no state law, and no federal law, that prevents the admission of these students to public or private institutions. But in reality, the variety of different policies implemented by educational institutions put up barriers to admission.  For example, colleges in Virginia require a potential student to provide proof of citizenship or residency in order to be allowed admission.

In other cases, institutions accept undocumented students but they classify them as foreign students. Therefore, the students pay much higher tuition fees and are not eligible for the in-state fees that US citizens and residents pay. The undocumented students are also not eligible for state aid. State and federal aid comes in the form of loans, scholarships, grants, and money for work-study programs. Without access to state and federal aid, many students find it impossible to afford college. However, as private institutions set their own policies there are some places that will grant aid to undocumented students.

What is the Legislation for Undocumented Students?

Legislation has been passed by more than 17 states to allow undocumented high school students to pay the in-state tuition to attend college or university in the state. The states that allow undocumented students to attend college are Florida, Oregon, California, Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma, New York, Texas, New Jersey, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Washington.

If the DREAM Act (Development Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act) is passed then millions of other undocumented students living in the US would have access to in-state tuition. The DREAM Act was first developed in 2001 and is currently in the process of debate. Under the DREAM legislation undocumented students will have to graduate from high school, have come to the US at least five years prior to the signing of the law, and must complete at least two years of a four-year degree within a six-year period, graduate, or serve for two years in the US military. In meeting these requirements they would be eligible for the in-state tuition rates paid by other residents of the state.

While the issue of undocumented students is contentious, there are still pathways for undocumented students to progress through higher education. Finding the right way is the job of college counselors, high school teachers, and families – until the law changes it remains difficult but possible for undocumented students to achieve a college education.