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Undocumented Students in High School: Supporting Access to Higher Education

As a student attending a large public high school in Maryland, the college process is often difficult to navigate. In the age of pandemic learning and frequent changes to the college process, it is not uncommon to feel unsupported, like a cog in a giant machine. Both of these elements make it important that all students receive support in their journey to higher education if that is the path they wish to pursue.

Undocumented students face additional barriers and challenges. Around 100,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year in the United States. Many of these students consider enrolling in an institution of higher education. Unfortunately, due to legal, financial, and social obstacles, this process is complicated. Undocumented students may face additional barriers compared to other students due to restrictive state and federal policies and a lack of support resources. In addition, the rate of high school graduation for undocumented students trends lower than the national average. High school is a pivotal step towards adulthood, especially for those entering higher education. This is why it is imperative to remove barriers and provide protection and additional support for undocumented students in high school who want to pursue higher education. 

As decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe, students are ensured a K-12 public education irrespective of immigration status. However, the case did not extend protections to higher education. This leaves undocumented students vulnerable as many states have restrictions that make it more difficult for these first-generation college students to access higher education.  

The U.S. is home to a patchwork of state policies related to undocumented students’ access to in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. Undocumented students can access in-state tuition in 23 states and D.C. Of those states, 17 states and D.C. also provide access to state aid, including grants and public loans. However, some states, like Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, bar undocumented students from enrolling in at least some public colleges and universities. Five additional states (Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina Tennessee, and Wisconsin) allow their undocumented students to enroll in public colleges and universities but require that they pay out of state tuition.  

Because the college process starts early, it is important that undocumented students have access to crucial information and support services in high school. This includes help for undocumented students during the high school years on how to apply, enroll, and find financial support for higher education. The ability to reach a higher level of education is important because it is linked to better economic outcomes. In addition, in many legislative bills like the Dream Act, higher education is recognized as a key way to qualify for permanent legal status.  

High school counselors can play an important role in helping undocumented students in high school learn more about their higher education options. However, counselors may not always be familiar with immigration-related issues, including whether their state offers access to in-state tuition. At my public high school specifically, school counselors did not receive immigration-specific training or literature on the matter. Thankfully, some counselors have personal or professional experiences that make them more knowledgeable on how to best help undocumented high school students enter higher education.  

Counselors should be able to provide undocumented students with key information, including whether undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition, what type of financial aid or scholarships they are eligible for, and what colleges and universities have immigrant-friendly policies. In Maryland, for example, undocumented students who graduate from a Maryland high school and meet other criteria can qualify for Maryland State Financial Aid Application (MSFAA) and access in-state tuition. School counselors play an important role because they can connect students with this information. This is particularly important, because in-state tuition is nearly three times cheaper than the alternative. 

Steps must be taken to ensure that undocumented high school students gain access to the necessary support and resources. High school is a pivotal time for decisions related to college. But for undocumented students in high school, many barriers exist making higher education seem out of reach. Which is why high school counselors and school districts must be better informed on immigration related issues, and states and the federal government must eliminate discriminatory legislation in this regard. 

There are several solutions that can help undocumented students in high school be better aware about how to access higher education. These include more resources specifically for undocumented students and more broad immigration reforms.  

Resources. First, providing resources is key to helping first generation college applicants, including undocumented students. Counselors need to be equipped to properly understand the challenges that immigrant families face and the resources at their disposal, including their state policies related to in-state tuition access. Counselors must also aim to be better informed about financial aid options, including state aid and/or private scholarships and support. Research on this topic is limited and this paucity of literature suggests that high school counselors have limited information to guide them in addressing the needs of undocumented immigrant children. (Vistas 2016) 

Change State and Federal Polices. Second, due to state and federal legislation, many students are already facing immigration-related barriers to higher education starting in high school. Some of these laws include the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA; 1996) and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA; 1996). These laws constrain undocumented immigrant families. Specifically, they bar access to federal financial aid for undocumented students. No state or federal law should serve as a barrier to education and prevent people from reaching their full potential, which is why Congress should pass legislation to provide permanent legal status to undocumented students, such as the Dream Act. States should pass laws to expand access to in-state tuition and state aid to the state’s undocumented students.  

As someone currently experiencing the trials and tribulations of college applications, many of my experiences have revealed that the process is complicated. Many people have access to ACT/SAT prep help, college essay coaches, and parental connections to university institutions. But undocumented students may not have access to these support services or familial connections. Furthermore, there are policies in some states making higher education further out of reach. For such an important issue, change must be made in the form of better-informed school counselors and more widely available resources, and fundamental reform to the immigration process.  


The National Immigration Forum would like to thank Emily Dean, Policy and Advocacy Intern, for developing this blogpost. Emily is a rising high school senior in the DC metro area.  


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