New report shows how states limit access to higher education for undocumented students

Undocumented students face persistent obstacles to higher education, including state and federal policies that prohibit access to tuition and basic needs assistance—all while enduring the persistent threat of deportation, says a new report from The Education Trust, a nonprofit educational equity organization. More than 427,000 undocumented students are currently enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, but only 182,000 are eligible for or are current recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, a two-year renewable program that protects undocumented individuals from deportation and grants them work authorization and potential access to state or college financial aid.

Related: Georgetown reinforces its support for DACA >

However, many financial barriers remain for all undocumented students, including DACA recipients, Al Día reports. Ongoing legal challenges have left DACA recipients at risk of losing those protections, and, like non-recipients, they are ineligible for federal financial aid (Pell Grants, work-study, or federal student loans) and face state policies that limit access to in-state tuition, work permits, and food and housing assistance. Nearly 90% of undocumented students are students of color, and “equitable education for these students is a racial justice and equity issue,” the report’s authors write.

Related: Advocates working to unlock internship, research opportunities for undocumented students >

Analysis of state policies

The report examined the 15 states with the largest shares of undocumented students—Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington—to determine whether their state policies impede undocumented students’ access to college and how those policies might be improved to better serve these students’ academic needs. The report then analyzed these policies according to several important issues related to students’ ability to thrive, including:

  • In-state tuition: Although 12 of the 15 states provide unrestricted access to in-state resident tuition for all undocumented students if they meet state-specific eligibility requirements, five (Arizona, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida) limit or prohibit undocumented students from receiving state financial aid. 
  • Basic needs support: Basic needs insecurity can adversely affect students’ ability to complete college, yet seven of the 15 states (including New York, New Jersey, and Virginia) deny undocumented students access to state-funded housing assistance. Undocumented students are also ineligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
  • Health care: Twelve states prohibit undocumented students from accessing their state’s Medicaid program; three (New York, California, and Illinois) provide state Medicaid access to students within a certain age range and with DACA status. 
  • Employment: After graduation, undocumented individuals may discover they are unable to work in their fields of study. Eight states prohibit undocumented individuals from accessing professional/commercial licenses, which are often a prerequisite to practice certain professions or trades, including teaching, nursing, law, and counseling. 
  • Deportation: Nine of the 15 states have at least one policy that limits local cooperation with federal immigration authorities seeking to identify, detain, or deport undocumented individuals.


Enacting a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented individuals would allow students to have more equitable access to higher education and the resources they need to thrive, the report’s authors say. They also suggest reforms to ensure all undocumented students are eligible for federal and state financial aid and have access to state public benefits, such as professional/commercial licenses, Medicaid, housing, and food assistance.

“Providing equitable higher education access for undocumented students means making college accessible and affordable for them,” say the report’s authors. “But it also means acknowledging the unique challenges they face because of their immigration status and ensuring that they get the additional supports they need.”

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