The term "perfect fit" pops up often during the college search. It refers to the college that’s best for you based on its location, size, available majors, extracurricular activities, and more. Only you can decide which college is right for you, but undocumented students must take a couple of extra considerations into account when they begin their searches for the perfect fit.


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Where should I begin my college search?

First of all, a college must have a policy in place that welcomes undocumented students to apply. It’s fruitless to apply to the University of Alabama, for example, because it will automatically deny your application based on your immigration status. In some states, for example, undocumented students are denied the option of attending any public universities. All of this means that you must seek out colleges that consider applications from undocumented students.

Your second consideration is a school’s affordability. Because undocumented students cannot access federal financial aid, they often cannot afford to go to expensive colleges (or any college at all). During your college search, you should be well aware of your financial situation. You may find that you have limited access to private and institutional scholarships and state financial aid.

What are my most affordable college options from cheapest to most expensive?

Your most inexpensive college options depend on your situation, the state you live in, and your eligibility for financial aid. With that being said, some options are generally more affordable than others. They are listed below, starting with cheaper options and ending with the more expensive ones.

  • Vocational schools*: Some students decide to pursue a trade. The job market is great since baby boomers are retiring. In order to pursue certain trades or vocations, you may be required to have a credential in addition to your high school diploma. It could be a certificate, certification, or license. Vocational schools aim to prepare their students for their trades and any exams they might have to pass. These schools tend to be less expensive than colleges because they don’t require as many years of study.
  • Community colleges: The majority of community colleges are public, but there are some private ones sprinkled across the nation as well. These schools often charge tuition by the number of credit hours you are taking. This means that you can adjust your course load according to your ability to make tuition payments. You can also enroll as a part-time student so that you can continue working evenings, if necessary. At half the price of a public university, community college is already a bargain. Often, community colleges offer two-year programs. At the end of the program, you can transfer to a public university to complete your bachelor’s degree. In the meantime, you’ll be knocking out your general education requirements at a price that can’t be beat.
  • Online degree programs*: Online degree programs may be right for you if you have an overwhelming schedule, family commitments, and a job at the same time. The University of the People is a tuition-free, nonprofit university that is completely online. About a quarter of its students are undocumented. The only costs are the $100 fees for each end-of-course exam. While it is difficult to find other accredited programs so inexpensive, there are many online universities that accept undocumented students.
  • Your state’s public universities: At face value (without considering financial aid or scholarships), in-state tuition at a public university is more affordable than the tuition at any out-of-state public university and most private colleges, too. Public university, thereby, presents an exciting and feasible option for qualifying undocumented students. If you haven’t already, check to see if your state offers in-state tuition to undocumented students (also called tuition equity) by finding your state on the map here. Because undocumented students cannot establish legal residency anywhere in the United States, you can prove your eligibility for in-state tuition if you graduated high school in the state or lived there for a specified period of time. One of the states that currently offers in-state tuition to undocumented students is California. For the 2017-2018 school year, the University of California estimates in-state tuition at $14,050 and out-of-state tuition at $42,064.  Across the nation, in-state tuition is cheaper than out-of-state tuition. If you are lucky enough to be eligible for a deal this good, it’s worth serious consideration.
  • Out-of-state public universities: Unfortunately, picking up and moving to a different state won’t grant you eligibility for that state’s tuition equity policies, but it will open up more options in your college search. Looking outside of your state is a necessary step for those that live in areas that bar undocumented students from enrolling in their universities (i.e. Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia). For other students that live in one of the 26 states without tuition equity, an out-of-state university might be around the same price as attending a public school in state. In this scenario (for example, if you graduated high school in Arizona, Pennsylvania, or one of many other states), you would have to pay out-of-state tuition to attend a college in that state anyway. You might as well branch out your college search to include colleges in other states that better support your major or your goals. Because of your state’s policy, it might cost similarly anyway.
  • Private colleges that offer institutional aid*: Private colleges are usually even more expensive than public universities at their out-of-state costs. The U.S. Department of Education estimated that the average annual cost of a private university was a whopping $25,735. Because they don’t operate on government dollars, private schools can make their own rules. Some choose not to accept undocumented students at all, but the majority will consider your application. Oftentimes they will group you in with the pool of international applicants. This is good news for your ability to enroll, but it tends to mean that you will be saddled with a big tuition bill. It’s a good idea to contact a private school’s financial aid office to see if your status as an undocumented (international) student interferes with your eligibility for financial aid. Otherwise, in your search, you might start with U.S. News, which recently listed the ten private schools that offer the most aid to international students.
  • Private colleges that do not offer institutional aid*: If you decide to attend a private university that does not offer institutional aid, you will probably be stuck paying the sticker price. If they decide to consider you an international applicant, they may even tack on a surcharge. Application fees for international applicants tend to be pricier than those for domestic applicants.

*Every college or university is either nonprofit or for-profit. All public schools are nonprofit, as are many private schools. Nonprofit schools reinvest money they receive as tuition back into the school; they are not looking to profit from their students. For-profits, on the other hand, are businesses trying to make money. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean that for-profit schools will raise your tuition bills. Nonprofits generally maintain lower tuition costs, which is why it is suggested that you consider them first before looking at for-profit schools. For more information about nonprofit and for-profit schools, click here.

Are there any kinds of schools that I should avoid, even if they seem affordable and welcoming to undocumented students?

As you start looking at schools, consider accreditation. If a school is accredited, it has satisfactorily passed an evaluation. Nonaccredited schools have not, and you should take care to avoid them, even if they seem like your most affordable option. Oftentimes, degrees that are granted by nonaccredited schools carry no weight in the job market. It’s a bad investment.

During my college search, should I be aware of any other ways to cut tuition costs?

  • Find affordable housing. Living at home is typically the cheapest housing option for college students, so consider the schools in your town or near your family members. You could potentially receive in-state tuition, depending on your state, and save money while living at home. Living with your parents may not be ideal, but it will shorten your commute and prevent you from accumulating even more debt. Are there any colleges close to home that appeal to your academic interests and your wallet? If your family does not live near your college, however, you only have two options: on-campus housing and off-campus housing. The latter tends to be the cheaper of those two choices.
  • Apply for private and institutional scholarships. Some funding is available specifically for undocumented students or students from certain schools.
  • Work your way through college. While no unauthorized immigrants are eligible for federal work-study programs, those with DACA can apply for work permits and social security numbers that allow them to hold jobs legally.

Page last updated: 09/2017