General Education

Differences by State: Undocumented Students in Higher Education

Differences by State: Undocumented Students in Higher Education
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Cynthia Carvajal profile
Cynthia Carvajal June 15, 2015

Undocumented students face many challenges in obtaining financial aid for college — but these difficulties vary by state. Here’s what you need to know.

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As it currently stands, no K–12 school may deny services for students based of their immigration status or country of origin.

Upon graduating high school, however, certain vulnerable populations are not provided with adequate support or resources to navigate the world of higher education. Undocumented students especially face unique and difficult barriers when attempting to undertake the college admissions process. One such barrier is obtaining financial aid.

The Context: Understanding Important Legislation

In 1966, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRCA), which prohibits undocumented students from qualifying for any postsecondary education benefits unless a citizen is also eligible for the same benefits. As a result, undocumented college students are restricted from accessing federal education funds.

Awareness about financial support for undocumented students has continued to gain momentum through undocumented student activism. The long road toward awareness has produced a series of legislative opportunities that support undocumented students’ academic mobility. These opportunities, however, are not holistic, consistent, or focused on financial aid directly.

At the federal level, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) has become the most well-known federal initiative for undocumented students (hence the term DREAMers). If enacted, it would provide undocumented students with the opportunity to apply for temporary status and eventually a road to citizenship under specific conditions, which include: a degree from high school or GED equivalency, acceptance to college, and arrival to the U.S. at the age of 15 or younger. Despite its recognition, Congress has failed to pass the federal DREAM Act several times. It was last introduced in 2011.

In an effort to show support for undocumented individuals, President Obama issued an executive order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA borrowed some requirements from the DREAM Act, such as high school degree or GED equivalency and arrival in the U.S. before the age of 16. This executive order protects its recipients from deportation for two years and provides them with the opportunity to apply for work authorization. Work authorization allows undocumented individuals and students the opportunity to earn income before, during, and after working toward their degrees. While a positive step, this is not completely adequate for supporting current undocumented college students.

States, colleges, and universities now bear the responsibility of providing avenues of support for their own undocumented student populations. As a result, the types of support vary by state.

Support for Undocumented College Students in New York

In states like New York, which is known as a melting pot, it is assumed that the population will advocate for immigration legislation, including laws supporting undocumented students. Indeed, in the 1980s, it was the City University of New York (CUNY) and State University of New York (SUNY) systems that first instituted administrative policies that would provide in-state tuition for undocumented students, before that benefit was eliminated by IIRCA. It was not until 2002 that New York State passed a law offering in-state rates back to undocumented students. Despite this support, however, students often find themselves at a loss for advocates in administrative offices.

College students in the CUNY system have noted that fear prevents students from discussing their immigration status. In addition, there is a general lack of information about available options for undocumented students. Few administrators have information about how to offer financial support for undocumented students. Instead, students have looked for support through student-led advocacy groups, such as CUNY DREAMers, SUNY DREAM Teams, and the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC). These groups are made up of and led by undocumented students and allies who have learned to navigate the CUNY and SUNY systems throughout their educational lives.

Within these groups, students have been able to find mentors and networking opportunities that help them manage financial struggles. Recently, CUNY DREAMers was able to show CUNY that the institution owed thousands of dollars to undocumented students who were paying out-of-state fees, a clear violation of the 2002 law. To further advocate for undocumented students, groups like the NYSYLC began supporting the New York State Dream Act. Through undocumented student–led advocacy, the NYSYLC was able to push the bill to Governor Cuomo's executive budget by the Cuomo administration.

Unlike its federal counterpart, the NYSDA would provide financial support for undocumented students in New York State. NYSDA would afford undocumented students who meet the in-state tuition criteria access to state financial aid and scholarships. Without state aid, students are forced to pay tuition out of pocket and, as a result, students end up studying part-time, lengthening their undergraduate careers, and taking odd jobs to pay for their schooling. State-level Dream Acts such as New York’s would provide ways for states to support undocumented students financially.

Even undocumented students at private institutions find themselves struggling to stay financially afloat without state financial aid. Although private schools are more likely to provide undocumented students with scholarships, the lack of state funds that their peers receive pushes students to work excessive hours in order to offset their educational costs. Recently, New York University demonstrated support for undocumented students by providing a separate financial aid application for them. This separate funding system is intended to allow undocumented students to feel welcomed and be financially supported at NYU. This is the first year it will be implemented; therefore, we will see how (and whether) students will find themselves financially supported at NYU.

Support for Undocumented Students in California

Although New York does not currently provide state financial aid through a Dream Act, there are five states — California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington — that do allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid.

For example, the state of California is considered the most supportive state for undocumented students. It provides in-state tuition, state financial aid, and licenses for undocumented individuals. It also recently passed healthcare legislation for all, regardless of immigration status — and it was the first state to do so. There are also conversations at the University of California and Cal State University system that each college and university would be required to have an undocumented student resource center. Indeed, California is paving the road for undocumented student advocacy.

Undocumented students noted that prior to state financial aid through the California Dream Act, they found themselves at odds with the university systems in California. Students reported that it would take them four to six years to graduate from their undergraduate institutions due to financial stress. To meet their financial obligations, students would claim part-time status and defer for a year or more in order to work and save enough money for the following school year.

These students described the CA Dream Act as the reason they are now on track to graduate. Once students received access to state financial aid, they found that they were able to work and study because they longer had to pay for school on their own. Access to resource centers in certain institutions also provided them with the proper support and mentorship to continue their education.

Much like New York state students, California students found a support system through school DREAM Teams. Moreover, through these undocumented student-led clubs, undocumented immigrants were able to identify allies in administrative positions even prior to the California Dream Act. For example, a student who was able to ask the right questions and speak to the right people found himself in communication with a financial aid advisor who knew how to advocate for him, despite the hurdles that existed due to his status. This student then returned to the club and shared his experience with other members.

Even among undocumented-friendly institutions, California is far ahead of other states. There are still states that are just getting started on supporting their students, such as Maryland, and others that explicitly ban the presence of undocumented immigrants in higher education, such as Arizona. These types of measures will be covered in a forthcoming article to be published on Noodle.

As more states consider the important question of how they can help all of their residents achieve educational and occupational goals, the example of California shines a light on the many bright futures that could be.

_Follow this link to find further guidance about financial aid for college._


An Overview of College-Bound Undocumented Students. Retrieved May 30, 2015 from Educators for Fair Consideration{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}

CUNY Refunds Tuition to Some Immigrants. Retrieved May 30, 2015 from NBC New York{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}

Martinez, M. (2011, Oct 9). Undocumented Immigrant Students Will be eligible for California Aid. Retrived May 30, 2015 from CNN{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}

Road to College | New York State Youth Leadership Council. Retrieved May 30, 2015 from New York State Youth Leadership Council{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}

Undocumented Students: State Action. Retrieved on May 30 from National Conference of State Legislators{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}


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