Dreamers still face an uphill battle to be able to pay for college without access to in-state tuition. (Photo Courtesy Michele Rudy)

Opinion: Progress on immigration reform but DREAMers face challenges applying to college

With the immigration debate in full swing, there seems to be an apparent light at the end of the tunnel for DREAMers. However, the student DREAMers who want to attend and apply to college this year still face significant barriers applying and funding college.  With high school graduations around the corner, it is worth noting the challenges and solutions to how these students can move forward and attain a higher education.

Despite lawfully being able to receive a free public school education from kindergarten through high school, regardless of residency or citizenship status, undocumented students’ futures beyond twelfth grade are uncertain.  An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year, but just 7.5% of these students continue on to college.  Most of these students are unable to pursue a college degree due to financial and legal barriers.

Getting Into College

Undocumented students are legally eligible to attend most public and private universities in the United States.  Federal law does not prohibit undocumented students from attending U.S. colleges, but some states have laws that prohibit students from attending public institutions.  South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia have banned undocumented students from attending public universities and colleges.

Even when legally eligible, it may be more difficult for undocumented students to get accepted into college.  Most private schools count undocumented students as international applicants throughout the admissions process.  However, this process is often need-blind, and undocumented students will be competing with international students who may have a better ability to fund four years of private college tuition.

In addition, undocumented students may not even apply to college because of the risk of exposing their immigration status.  Many undocumented families are wary of revealing their immigration status to college admissions offices; this problem persists even though the Federal Education and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of students records, protecting those at public and private institutions alike.  If an undocumented student lies, however, they may have their admission denied or revoked.

Paying for College

The College Board has estimated that the average overall cost of education at an in-state public college in 2012 is $22,261 per year, and the cost of a four-year private school is $42,289 per year. Additionally, university-filled cities like Boston, New York and Los Angeles are much more expensive in general for students than smaller cities, according to a cost of living calculator.

Although many students receive grants and scholarships, putting the average net price of private college at $27,600 per year, undocumented students are not eligible for many of these financial awards that other students can receive.  Undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid and most state-based financial aid, including grants, work-study programs and federal loan programs.  Some private scholarships are available to undocumented students, and a few schools (such as Berkeley) have funds earmarked specifically for undocumented students, but financial resources for undocumented students are difficult to obtain.

Several states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland (only for community colleges), Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.  The specific laws vary, but most states require undocumented students to have lived in the state for at least three years.  On the other end of the spectrum, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Indiana have completely banned undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition.

College admissions and financial aid applications can be a barrier to undocumented students as well as students with undocumented parents.  Even though undocumented students cannot access federal financial aid funds, many universities require that all students applying for aid fill out the FAFSA, and these schools determine aid packages by using FAFSA’s expected family contribution number (EFC).  Many undocumented students and parents are afraid of putting their information into the federal government’s hands and consequently do not apply for aid at all.

What can undocumented students do?

As the American family unit evolves, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that all students are able to apply for financial aid, regardless of their family situation, citizenship status or financial resources.  First-year college students who apply for financial aid are 72% more likely to stay in school than those who are eligible but do not apply.  Fortunately, there are resources available to assist students with this critical process. For example, a new FAFSA Guide by website NerdScholar helps students with nontraditional families navigate the FAFSA process. This guide includes step-by-step instructions for undocumented immigrants as well as documented students with undocumented parents.

Nerdscholar (1)Divya Raghavan is an analyst for NerdWallet, a consumer-friendly financial literacy website that offers unbiased resources and advice to help consumers apply to college, navigate their personal finances and find the best CD rates.

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