In October at the annual WIDA Conference, Diane Staehr Fenner and I presented a session on Strengthening English Learners’ Pathways to High School Graduation. During the Q&A, an educator raised the issue of undocumented students applying to college and the added layer of complications they face. We quickly realized there is still a lot of confusion around the process. Applying to college is stressful enough without being undocumented. As educators, we owe it to our students to help them navigate this complicated and murky process. Given the difficulty of this issue, we wanted to dig deeper and share our findings to best support these students. Below are four steps you can take to support undocumented students who want to apply to college.

Know your students’ rights.

In our online course, Effectively Advocating for English Learners, we highlight that knowing your students’ rights is an essential step in effectively advocating for them. So, in order to help your students navigate the complicated college application process, you first need to know their rights.

I spoke with Lena Papagiannis, a high school history teacher in Boston Public Schools and co-chair of Unafraid Educators, a committee within the Boston Teachers Union that supports undocumented and immigrant students and families¹. She pointed me to an amazing document– “Resources for Undocumented Students Applying to College”–created by Unafraid Educators. As their guide explains, at the federal level:

  • Undocumented status does not prevent students from being admitted to or enrolling in college.
  • Parents’ citizenship status does not affect eligibility to apply to college or complete a FAFSA form.

A student’s undocumented status may, however, affect tuition in the following ways:

  • Many schools will charge undocumented students the tuition rate for international students.
  • Undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid, which includes Federal Pell Grants, Federal Work-Study, and Federal District Student Loans.
  • Undocumented students are eligible for private aid, such as scholarships.
  • Even though undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid, it is important for all applicants to fill out a FAFSA form. If a college or university can provide aid to an undocumented student, it will use the FAFSA to determine how much aid to award. See the FAFSA FAQ from Unafraid Educators for more information.

At the state level, policies range from prohibiting undocumented students from enrolling in public colleges and universities (currently Alabama and South Carolina) to granting undocumented students state financial aid (currently nine states including California and Maryland) and in-state tuition (currently 21 states including Hawaii and Maine). The National Conference of State Legislatures has tracked state laws regarding college access for undocumented students and was updated in 2019. These policies are subject to change, so be sure to keep up to date on your state’s policies.

Identify allies in your school community and beyond.

As we discuss in our online Advocacy course, one of the key steps for advocating for students is knowing your allies. There are many stakeholders invested in undocumented students applying to college–parents, administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, community organizations, and national organizations, for example. We can most effectively support our students when we team up with allies.

  • If you are a teacher, find other teachers in your school and district who are committed to supporting undocumented youth.
  • Dialogue with guidance and college counselors who also hold valuable knowledge on the college application process and are essential partners in this work. Administrators are also powerful allies.
  • If you are an administrator, reach out to other schools in your district to find models for your work or partners for new initiatives.
  • Reach out to parents and your parent association to bring families on board with programs or initiatives you are starting.

Connect with organizations in your community that could be potential partners. If you don’t have access to one locally, organizations around the country are working to support undocumented youth and are excellent resources. United We Dream, led by immigrant youth, offers toolkits, guides, and resources for youth and educators. Immigrants Rising compiles lists of undergraduate and graduate scholarships open to undocumented students.

Share what you know with the community.

Once you’ve done the work of educating yourself on students’ rights and identifying your allies, it’s time to share what you’ve learned. Some ideas to consider are to:

  • Provide a workshop in your own community in multiple languages (using interpreters as appropriate).
  • Reach out to your school’s parent association.
  • Hold an event at a local library or community center. Unafraid Educators, The Student Immigrant Movement, and Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) recently hosted a webinar geared towards educators and students entitled “How Can [Undocumented] Immigrants Pay for College?.” You can host a similar digital event in your community.

Ms. Papagiannis, co-chair of Unafraid Educators, makes another important point that this information should be shared widely, not just with students you know to be undocumented, for a number of reasons. Even if you are the warmest, most welcoming educator, students may not tell you their status. Even if you think you know who your undocumented students are, you really don’t. We cannot wait for a student to reveal their status to us before we give them this information. Additionally, “Talking about status openly helps to raise awareness about the challenges undocumented youth face. It also helps to normalize having status issues and signals to students — all students — that their school truly cares about them, no matter what,” noted Papagiannis. Leave handouts with this information in a place where students and family members can discreetly pick it up if they aren’t ready to publicize their status.

See your advocacy through.

Once you’ve educated yourself on your students’ rights, found your allies, and shared your knowledge, it’s time to see your advocacy through. Advocacy doesn’t end after you’ve told undocumented students that they can apply to college. It means sticking with students every step of the way. Papagiannis explains, “Teachers need to be committed to doing the grunt work alongside students — helping to craft emails, practice interviewing, review phone scripts… It’s just another form of teaching students and loving them.”

Advocacy doesn’t end once students have applied to college, either. Since undocumented students are not eligible for federal aid, private scholarships are especially important for college access. So educators also have to advocate for student access to scholarships–even getting on the phone to specific organizations. Papagiannis recounts, “It is more common than you think that a scholarship says in its requirements that a person has to be a citizen but if you call and check they have no idea why that’s a requirement and they can change it.”

Further, we have to advocate beyond eligibility for college scholarships. Even if students are technically eligible, we have to support them in building their high school resumes so they can be competitive applicants. In order to build their resumes, students need access to K-12 extracurricular activity programs (e.g., coding workshops, fine arts classes, summer camps, etc). While some programs using federal funding may not be able to use it on scholarships for undocumented students, they have more flexibility if they receive private funding. Papagiannis shared that high school activity programs, like college scholarship programs, can sometimes change criteria for participation if you ask. Further, she suggests that advocates “encourage these programs to create a line of funding for undocumented students” with private or unrestricted funding if they are able. Once one program accomplishes this, you can ask if other high school programs may contact them for support in doing the same.

As we know, a resume can’t be built at the last minute. So we have to begin advocating for students early in high school if possible. Students need to know what their extracurricular and college options are so they can set goals and begin working toward them. Papagiannis explains, “This work has the added benefit of fighting hopelessness in younger students who may believe the misconception that there are no academic options for undocumented youth.”

We encourage you to share this blog post and sketch note with your networks so we can all work to support our undocumented students. You can click here to share our blog post and sketch note on Twitter, or click here to download this sketch note immediately. If you are interested in learning more about effectively advocating for English learners and connecting with other advocates, sign up for our winter online course on EL Advocacy.

References and Additional Resources:

¹ Ms. Papagiannis thanks Valeria Do Vale of the Student Immigrant Movement for teaching her so much about how to support and fight for undocumented young people.

Federal Student Aid, an Office of the U.S. Department of Education. (2019). Financial Aid and Undocumented Students: Questions and Answers.

Immigrants Rising. (2019). Applying for Scholarships.

My Undocumented Life. (2019). Scholarships Open to Undocumented Students.

National Conference of State Legislatures. (2019). Tuition Benefits for Immigrants.

Student Immigrant Movement. (2019).

U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Resource Guide: Supporting Undocumented Youth.

Unafraid Educators. (2019). Resources for Undocumented Students Applying to College.

United We Dream. (2018).