“Valedictorian, 4.5 GPA, full tuition paid for at UT, 13 cords/medals, nice legs, oh and I’m undocumented.”
Mayte Lara Ibarra, a Texas high school valedictorian with a full ride to the University of Texas at Austin, Tweeted these words simply to “show others that you can accomplish anything, regardless of the obstacles you have in front of you.” Her Tweet, however, quickly went viral, sparking controversy throughout Texas and across the United States.
Just a few days later, Larissa Martinez, another Texas valedictorian, announced to her class at McKinney Boyd High School in Dallas that she is “one of 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows.” Martinez, who plans to go to medical school and become a neurosurgeon, will attend Yale University in the fall on a full scholarship she received through Questbridge. Both Larissa and Mayte were met with a mixture of responses: some supportive, some negative, and some downright cruel. Many even wondered if their acceptances and full rides to Yale and UT Austin, respectively, were obtained legally.
How many undocumented high school students are there in the United States?
Larissa and Mayte aren’t alone. According to the American Immigration Counsel, approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year in the United States. Known as the 1.5 generation, these first-generation students:
- By and large, grew up in America.
- Are fluent in English .
- Culturally identify as American.
Some aren’t even aware of their undocumented status until later in life as a result of applying for a driver’s license or a bank account and realizing that they don’t have a social security number.
Can undocumented high school graduates legally attend college in the United States?
Undocumented students are guaranteed an education from kindergarten through 12th grade in US public schools, but can they apply to college like all other American high school graduates? The answer is yes, they can. Many assume that they cannot legally attend college in the United States, but it is perfectly legal for an undocumented student to apply to and attend both public and private colleges and universities in the US.
However, there are a few states, such as South Carolina, that have placed restrictions on undocumented students, preventing them from attending public universities. Moreover, it should be noted that it may be more difficult for undocumented students to obtain financial aid or reduced in-state tuition fees in some states, like Arizona and Georgia. What makes this even more difficult is that many of these students are either not aware of their rights, have trouble navigating the college admissions process, or are simply too afraid to apply (a 2013 report revealed that only 5-10% of the 65,000 undocumented students go on to college).
In light of this, we’ve done some research to help clear up some misconceptions about undocumented students and higher education. Here are six things undocumented students should be aware of when applying to college:
1. An undocumented student will apply almost exactly like an American citizen does.
The college application process is typically the same for all students: there are forms to fill out, essays to write and usually letters of recommendation, test scores and transcripts to send in. There is no federal law that requires proof of citizenship to be admitted or enroll at a US college.
However, Best Colleges, a website that provides information about higher education to students so they can make informed decisions, points out that undocumented students should be prepared to address two important details of the college application: Country of Citizenship and Social Security Number. In response to Country of Citizenship, Best Colleges suggests choosing the “No Selection” option. This allows students to skip questions about permanent residency and visa status, which are not applicable. Undocumented students should also skip filling in the Social Security Number section. An Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) or an Alien Number, which is obtained through DACA, cannot be used as substitutes.
2. High school guidance counselors CANNOT inquire about immigration status.
Any and all school personnel legally cannot inquire about the immigration status of students or their parents. Thus, a counselor will only know of a student’s undocumented status, and be able to help them navigate the college admissions process, if the student or the student’s family chooses to share this information.
Students should feel safe to disclose this information, as the U.S. Department of Education has directed teachers and administrators to “withhold judgement and biases about immigration status” and “convey openness and assuredness of confidentiality.” The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act also forbids schools from sharing students’ personal information, including immigration status. Moreover, there are organizations like Students Working for Equal Rights (SWER) and local college access programs that offer guidance to students.
3. Undocumented students should apply for DACA.
In 2012, President Obama created a new policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which is a limited immigration benefit program for undocumented individuals who arrived in the US before they were 16 years old. In order to be eligible for DACA relief, applicants must be either currently enrolled in school or have graduated from a US school, among many other requirements that are detailed here. Educators for Fair Consideration have also created a step-by-step guide for “dreamers applying for DACA.”
In addition to a two-year deferral that grants DACA members a work permit and permission to stay in the country, which can be renewed after two years, there are benefits to being a DACA member when applying to college. For example, Virginia offers in-state tuition at state colleges and universities only to immigrants with temporary legal status through DACA.
4. Restrictions differ from state to state.
Currently, there are at least 18 states that offer undocumented students in-state tuition rates, including California, Washington and Texas. Rhode Island offer in-state tuition through Board of Regents decisions, which simply means that the state board that governs institutes of higher education has decided to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students who attended three years of high school in the state and graduated. Virginia, as was mentioned above, offers in-state tuition only to students under the federal DACA.
Only three states (Arizona, Georgia and Indiana) specifically prohibit in-state tuition for undocumented students, while only two (Alabama and South Carolina) prohibit them from enrolling at all. Thus, it is especially important for undocumented students to understand the restrictions placed on them in their states, as affordability remains one of the greatest barriers to college access and success.
5. There are financial resources available specifically for undocumented students.
Undocumented students cannot receive any federally funded financial aid, including loans, grants, scholarships and work-study opportunities, or some state funded financial aid, as well. However, some states do grant eligibility for state financial aid for undocumented students who qualify for in-state tuition. Since private scholarship funds and foundations set their own financial aid policies, some are willing to give scholarships and aid to undocumented students, while others require applicants to be U.S. citizens or legal residents.
The National Immigration Law Center provides information that helps students determine the funding policies in their states, while the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund creates an extensive resource guide for students and parents each school year that lists scholarships for undocumented students, DACA members, first generation students, and more.
6. The laws may change…
Whether or not undocumented students should have access to public higher education in the US, and the same financial aid benefits as citizens and legal immigrants, remains a contentious issue, and so laws and restrictions surrounding this issue may change. Thus, it is important for undocumented students to remain informed and look out for news and policies that may affect their college plans.
So, how should an undocumented student go about applying to college?
- First and foremost, they should know that they can indeed apply and enroll.
- They should talk to their high school counselor or a mentor for guidance.
- They should apply for DACA and scholarships available specifically for undocumented students.
- They should look out for news and policies that may impact their college plans.
Need some help navigating the college admissions process? That’s what we’re here for!