Preparing for college is always a huge responsibility, but as an undocumented student, you have additional planning to do. Because of social, financial, and legal barriers, your immigration status affects your college search and your applications. Not only do you have to become a competitive applicant and take standardized tests like the SAT or the ACT, but you have to find schools and financial aid sources that welcome applications from undocumented students.
When should I start thinking about my future?
The earlier, the better. Start now, if you haven’t already.
What is a good starting point?
- Understand your immigration status. It is a good idea to know what your immigration status is and what it means well before you start the college application process. You will likely find that your immigration status presents many obstacles, but current immigration policy could benefit you. Check with your parents or a lawyer if you are unsure of your status or the answer to any of the following questions.
- What documents do you have?
- Are you entitled to any rights or protections?
- When did you enter the United States?
- Do you have a social security number? If not, are you eligible for one?
- Talk to a lawyer about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Deferred Action is an immigration policy used by the Department of Homeland Security. It helps differentiate between low-priority immigration cases (young people who arrived in the country during childhood) and more dangerous ones. DACA holders receive a work permit and social security number, both of which are needed to apply for jobs and some scholarships. Filing for DACA can also postpone immigration hearings or halt current removal (deportation) proceedings.
- Consult an experienced immigration attorney. As of September 5, 2017, the DACA program is no longer accepting new applications. A court order issued on January 9, 2018, has, however, ordered the government to continue processing renewal applications for any individuals who had DACA status on September 5, 2017. If you have DACA status that is nearing its expiration date, talk to an immigration attorney about the benefits and drawbacks of attempting to renew your status.
- Understand that DACA status is only temporarily renewable. Though a federal judge has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to process DACA renewals, this order is temporary. It will expire upon the resolution of a lawsuit that was filed to block the government from disbanding DACA. That said, Individuals are currently able to renew their protected status for two years at a time provided they had DACA status on September 5, 2017. The USCIS website recommends that students apply 120 to 150 days before their EADs expire to prevent gaps in DACA decisions, which is especially important if the timing of the gap could coincide with the timing of college applications. When your status expires, provided no legislative changes have occurred by that time, your protections are void and you are at risk for deportation.
- Work in high school, if you can. Because undocumented students—even those with DACA—are not eligible for federal financial aid, college is particularly expensive. If you are a current DACA beneficiary, take advantage of the EAD and SSN you receive. Work an after-school job in high school. Colleges love to see that you can balance work and school, and you’ll earn money to put toward tuition.
When should I start working on each component of my college applications?
The college application process takes a lot of work, and you can find admissions timelines to guide you. You may need to adapt premade timelines to fit your needs, however. Because your college search is more involved (you have to search for schools that are welcoming to undocumented students), it could take longer. Consider the following adjustments.
- Decide on your college short list your junior year of high school. Do your research a year ahead of time so that you have your college choices narrowed down by the end of your junior year. Your school search is going to take longer than many of your peers’. Before all else, you’ll need to consider whether your immigration status allows you to enroll in each particular school. Then, you’ll want to think about tuition costs for undocumented students. Don’t hesitate to contact the school’s admissions and financial aid departments if you can’t find the information on the school website. Once you know if attending a particular school is legally and financially feasible, consider your preferences, such as location, size, and programs of study. Finalize your shortlist before junior year is over.
- Take any English-language tests required of you before your senior year. Many undocumented students grow up in the United States, learn to speak fluent English, and attend high schools at which English is the primary language of instruction. If this describes you, you might not have to take any English-language tests to graduate high school or to get into college. However, admissions policies depend on the school. Some schools will consider all undocumented applicants to be international students and require that they pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The score you need will depend on the school, but most schools require a score of over 550 on the paper-based test and over 75 on the electronic version. Other schools will ask for a score from the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Again, requirements and test scores depend on the college, so check with individual admissions departments for additional information. If you find out that an English-language test is required of you, there is no need to worry, especially if you get an early start on testing. You can find TOEFL and IELTS test prep books online or at your local bookstore. You can also sign up for an online course such as Magoosh TOEFL Preparation or Understanding IELTS from FutureLearn.
- Spend your senior year working on applications and looking for private funding. Researching colleges can be the most exhausting part of the college application process. If you can knock it out of the way your junior year, you’ll be able to concentrate on your applications for schools and scholarships during your senior year. Scour databases and lists of scholarships for undocumented students and talk to your high school counselor who might have recommendations for your search.
- If you are a DACA recipient who has obtained a Social Security number, consider filing the FAFSA soon after it's release. Students without documents, even those with DACA status, cannot file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid unless they have obtained a Social Security number. Even with a Social Security number, your immigration status bars you from accessing any federal financial aid. Information provided on the FAFSA, however, may be used to determine your eligibility for state-based financial aid, institutional financial aid, or private scholarships. If you have a Social Security number, reach out to the financial aid office at the school(s) to which you're applying and ask about their procedures for students without documents. You may be instructed to fill out the FAFSA, but you could be told that there are other procedures to follow to access state or institutional aid. The FAFSA becomes available every October 1. Filling out the FAFSA is not risky; it is not customary for the U.S. Department of Education to release your information to the Department of Homeland Security.
- If you do not have a Social Security number, you cannot file the FAFSA. Instead, talk to your high school counselor or someone from the financial aid office at each institution to which you're applying. You may be directed to an application for state-based financial aid (like the Washington Application for State Financial Aid), told that state-based financial aid isn't available to students without documents, or directed to apply for private scholarships and grants.
Page last updated: 03/2018