Scholarships for Undocumented Students

Undocumented students are not eligible for U.S. federal student aid. However, some may be eligible for state student financial aid programs, college-specific financial aid programs and private scholarships.

Financial Aid for Students with DACA Status

Undocumented students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status are not eligible for federal student aid funds. However, they may be eligible for financial aid from the state government or the college, depending on where they live or go to school. Some colleges will tell DACA students to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), since it is a convenient way to get the student’s data into the colleges’ financial aid administrative systems. DACA students should select the “No, I am not a citizen or eligible noncitizen” answer to the FAFSA question about citizenship.

However, California students with DACA status should not file FAFSA. Instead, they should file the California Dream Act Application at www.caldreamact.org.

Scholarship and Financial Aid Guides for Undocumented Students

There are several scholarship and financial aid guides written for undocumented students.

Scholarships for Undocumented Students

Some of these scholarships are specifically targeted at undocumented students, while others are more general scholarship programs that are not restricted by citizenship. Undocumented students should also search the various free scholarship matching services, like StudentScholarshipSearch.com, since there are many general scholarship programs open to students without regard to citizenship status, especially essay competitions.

Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC) has created the Invest in the Dream Fund to provide matching funds to encourage the creation of new scholarships for undocumented students and the expansion of existing scholarship programs.

Federal Law

Section 505 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (8 USC 1623(a)) was intended to ban states from providing in-state tuition rates to undocumented students. The specific statutory language is as follows:

an alien who is not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible on the basis of residence within a State (or a political subdivision) for any postsecondary education benefit unless a citizen or national of the United States is eligible for such a benefit (in no less an amount, duration, and scope) without regard to whether the citizen or national is such a resident.

Court cases involving this legislation have had mixed outcomes, in part because the wording is “unless a citizen or national of the United States is eligible” and not “unless all citizens and nationals of the United States are eligible” and in part due to discussion of whether the word “benefit” is limited to monetary payments or also applies to status benefits like reduced tuition. Some court cases against state laws allowing in-state tuition for undocumented students have also been overturned on procedural grounds, such as the plaintiff’s lack of standing to challenge the law, the lack of a private right of action to enforce the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 or the failure to document “concrete and nonspeculative” harm from the state laws. If these court cases ever reach the U.S. Supreme Court, the court’s decision is likely to center around the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, as did the decision in Plyler v. Doe (457 US 202, 1982).

Some states have circumvented the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 by providing in-state tuition benefits and/or state grants without asking the student whether he or she is a U.S. citizen or national or in the U.S. illegally. Other states have passed legislation banning in-state tuition for undocumented students.

Pending legislation, called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, would repeal section 505 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and allow states to determine whether undocumented students are considered state residents for higher education purposes. The legislation would also provide a pathway to legal permanent residency and federal student aid for undocumented students.

Note that a student who is a U.S. citizen or national is eligible for federal student aid and in-state tuition even if the student’s parents are undocumented.

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