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Making College Dreams a Reality for Undocumented Students

student in classroomMore than 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate each year from US high schools.

For such students, obtaining and financing a college degree can be complex — but far from impossible.

"For most undocumented students, you have to put yourself out there,” college graduate Adriana Sanchez told USA Today. “You volunteer, you go beyond what regular students do.”

Sanchez’s family moved from Mexico to California when she was 12. Her farm worker parents overstayed their visas, making Sanchez an undocumented immigrant. She volunteered hundreds of hours and used internships to pay her way through college and graduate school.

Her hard work paid off.

"That's what connects us to opportunities,” said Sanchez, who graduated from California State University in 2012 with a master’s degree in international relations. “Now employers call me."

Follow these four steps to chart your course to college.

Dare to Dream
Don’t let your immigration status prevent you from continuing your education after high school.

“There is no federal law that says undocumented students cannot go to college,” said Aliza Gilbert, a college counselor at Highland Park High School (IL). “You don’t need a Social Security number.”

Although undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid, a growing number of states allow all residents  to take advantage of in-state tuition rates.

In addition, a handful of states provide all students — regardless of immigration status — access to state-based financial aid programs.  

Visit the National Immigration Law Center website to see how policies differ from state to state.

Make High School Count
Colleges are looking for students with solid academics and a history of involvement in extracurricular or community activities. An impressive high school record can help you snag scholarships and improve your chances of receiving merit aid from a college.

Both financing sources are especially important for undocumented students who aren’t able to access federal financial aid.

“I tell students that they should take the most rigorous program that will allow them to experience success,” Gilbert said. “And it’s important that they begin thinking about the profile they want to present to colleges starting in their freshman year.”

“Your grades, your course work and your scores matter — probably more so than for the average person,” she added. “You can’t afford to just coast.”

Consider Disclosing Your Status
Sharing your status can help school counselors or other trusted sources better assist you in the college application process.

“If kids don’t disclose to someone, they don’t get good information,” Gilbert said. “And without the right information, you’re either going to end up working really, really hard on your own or you’re just going to derail the process."

High school counselors and college financial aid officers will keep your status confidential and can point you toward institutional aid programs and outside scholarships that are open to undocumented students.

They can also provide advice about applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program that offers young people a reprieve from deportation. DACA status allows recipients to legally work and live in the United States.

Search for Scholarships
Gilbert suggests college-bound students begin their scholarship search as early as possible.

“Even if they start as freshmen, they can keep a running a list of all the scholarships they plan to apply for during their senior year,” she said. “Seeking out scholarship dollars is a really important part of the college application process for undocumented students.”

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund website — maldef.org — includes scholarships aimed at students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (chci.org) and Fastweb.com oversee online databases with thousands of opportunities.

“The internet is really a great tool for students,” said Evelyn Garcia Morales, of the Washington, DC-based Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. “Scholarships can help make college affordable.”