Unfortunately, too many talented undocumented students give up on their college dreams. Only 5–10% of the 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school each year continue on to college. To raise this percentage, students without immigration documents must have the tools to fight oppressive legal, financial, and social barriers. They must know what they’re up against. The following list is not meant to overwhelm you; it is intended to prepare you for the obstacles you will face.


Disclaimer: The information contained herein is for informational purposes only as a service to the public. It is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel. The information contained in this website may or may not reflect the most current legal developments; accordingly, information on this website is not promised or guaranteed to be correct or complete and should not be considered an indication of future results. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, nothing provided herein should be used as a substitute for advice of competent counsel. In sum, the materials on this website do not constitute legal advice.

Social Obstacles

The social barriers that students encounter during the college application process vary person to person. Together with the high pressure of applying to college, these challenges affect emotional stability and self-confidence.

  • Negative stigma associated with illegal immigration: Discrimination against undocumented students persists. Terms such as “illegals” and “illegal aliens” are still widely used to refer to people who do not have authorized immigration documents. This derogatory language reduces someone’s personhood to just one action, and many people find that it hurts their self-esteem. An action, such as sneaking across the border or forging immigration documents, can be illegal, but a person cannot be.
  • Fear of deportation: For undocumented students who arrived in the country as infants, living here is all they know; the United States is home. Up to 80% of undocumented students, however, report that they are afraid of being deported and sent back to the country they barely know.
  • Mistrust of friends and teachers: Many undocumented students choose to hide their immigration status from those close to them. They fear that if their friends and teachers were to learn the truth, they would be rejected or reported to authorities. Undocumented students may therefore suffer from a weak support system, be it real or perceived.
  • Language barriers: Some students immigrated to the United States as older children. They might have struggled to learn English in high school, which resulted in lower grades on their report cards and less of a connection with their guidance counselors. They may also need to pass college entrance and English-language exams. If high schools do not offer ESL classes, students will have to access language-learning resources such as Busuu or Duolingo on their own time.
  • Families divided across borders: Many undocumented immigrants do not travel outside of the United States once they are within its borders. They may fear that they will be detained upon exiting or, more commonly, that they will be denied reentrance. This generally results in families being separated, some members living in the United States and others left abroad. This creates emotional strain and a scattered support system. Undocumented students often suffer from depression and feelings of isolation.
  • Lack of support from high schools: Most secondary schools offer college and career guidance, but their resources are not always tailored to immigrants. Counselors may have inadequate training in regards to the needs of undocumented students, and they may provide irrelevant or outdated information. You may need to seek out community centers or clubs specific to your culture that can offer you more personalized support than your high school can. Programming for immigrants often includes legal clinics and English classes.
  • Misinformation on eligibility and rights: Some undocumented students incorrectly assume that college is out of the question. They might think they are barred from attending college. Without resources and support systems, other students believe that going to college is an unrealistic goal. While it’s true that the cards are stacked against you, you can still attend an affordable college.

Financial Obstacles

Finances further interfere with the dreams of higher education that undocumented students have. Their restricted employment opportunities should signal a need for financial assistance, but grants and loans are not always within reach. Financial stressors are enormous.

  • High poverty rates for undocumented immigrants: 30% of all undocumented immigrants live below the poverty line. In some cases, families struggle to buy food and pay rent, so they simply cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars on their children’s college tuition.
  • Increasing tuition costs: Tuition at U.S. colleges is skyrocketing. The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education reports an average annual tuition of $7,617 at public universities and $24,269 at private institutions. The cost rises steadily each year.
  • No access to some forms of financial aid: Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal assistance programs such as food stamps, welfare, and Medicaid. Instead, they must rely on food banks, free clinics, or full-price medical services. Opportunities for federal financial aid are closed as well. All undocumented immigrants are thereby barred from accessing federal loans, grants, and work-study programs that help with college costs.
  • Private loans require a citizen cosigner: Each year, millions of students take out federal and private loans to help finance higher education. Undocumented immigrants are forbidden from receiving federal student loans, and they do not have easy access to private ones either. Banks and private lenders often require that an undocumented immigrant find a citizen or legal resident to cosign for a loan. With weak connections in the United States, some immigrant families have difficulty finding cosigners.

Legal Obstacles

When you think of your immigration status, your mind probably focuses on your legal rights—or lack thereof. Federal law doesn’t bar you from studying for a degree, but it does bar you from other rights and protections that can indirectly affect your college plans.

  • Temporary or no authorization to work: Without an employment authorization document (EAD), also called a work permit, an undocumented immigrant cannot legally hold a job. Those who do work are self-employed or under-the-table workers who are not granted employer protection. Fortunately, some young undocumented immigrants are eligible for a temporary EAD—and accompanying social security number—under a deferred action program for childhood arrivals. The request is not automatic nor is it permanent. If you do not have deferred action, you cannot legally hold a job before, during, or after college, which makes paying tuition near impossible.
  • No social security number: Undocumented immigrants can only receive an SSN if their deferred action request is approved. Otherwise, if you don’t have an SSN, you cannot work. You also cannot collect social security benefits or apply for state-based financial aid and/or private scholarships. Depending on your state, this could also affect your eligibility for a driver’s license, which would make your commute to class even harder.
  • No path to citizenship or permanent residency: As mentioned above, there are temporary steps that some undocumented students can take to obtain temporary employment authorization. This, however, does not apply to all undocumented immigrants, and it only offers a temporary solution to immigration proceedings. Currently, no legislation regarding immigration reform has been passed by the federal government. There are no direct tracks that undocumented students can follow to obtain citizenship or residency.

Page last updated: 03/2017