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How to Pay For College: A Guide for DACA Students

As you might know, “DACA” is the acronym for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA students, also referred to as “DREAMers,” face unique challenges in paying for college. Without U.S. citizenship, it’s more difficult to get financial aid for college. But before addressing financial aid, the first thing to know is that undocumented students can attend college in the United States. There is no federal law preventing undocumented students from attending U.S. colleges (although Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama prohibit undocumented students from enrolling in certain public colleges). 

The other key thing to understand is that unlike U.S. citizens, undocumented students cannot qualify for federal financial aid. This makes paying for college more challenging, but definitely not impossible. There are ways for DACA students to fund their college education without relying on money from the federal government. In this guide, we’ll break down the financial aid options for DACA students pursuing a college education. 

See also: Top DACA Scholarships

Private scholarships 

Earning private scholarships from non-profit organizations and foundations is one of the best ways for DACA students to pay for college. Certain scholarships don’t require applicants to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. DACA students should look for these scholarships and pay close attention to other eligibility requirements to make sure they qualify. The ideal time to search for scholarships is early during your senior year of high school, or the year prior to attending college. The following list includes some of the most popular DACA-eligible scholarships: 

  1. TheDream.US National Scholarship
  2. TheDream.US Opportunity Scholarship  
  3. Golden Door Scholarship
  4. Questbridge National Match Scholarship 
  5. Hispanic Scholarship Fund
  6. Cooke College Scholarship 
  7. Ascend Educational Fund (New York City only)
  8. PepsiCo Cesar Chavez Latino Scholarship Fund (Arizona and California only)
  9. Hispanic Educational Endowment Fund (Orange County, CA only)

DACA students can also search for scholarships using the following resources:

Also read: Top scholarships for immigrants

Institutional aid 

In some cases, DACA students can qualify for scholarships and grants offered by the college or university they plan to attend. Students should check with their prospective schools to see if they qualify for any institutional aid. Colleges may require students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the sole purpose of determining financial aid eligibility. You’ll need a Social Security Number (SSN) to fill out the FAFSA online. If you don’t have an SSN, you may be able to submit the paper FAFSA to the financial aid office (DACA students may also be able to obtain a SSN if they don’t have one). Every college has different policies, so check with your admissions counselor or financial aid counselor to see if (and how) you can qualify for aid. 

See also: Filling out the FAFSA without a social security number

State financial aid 

Although DACA students cannot qualify for federal financial aid, in some cases they can qualify for financial aid from the state where they attend school. At least 15 states currently allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid. These include California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington and the District of Columbia. This interactive map breaks down each state’s position on state financial aid access and in-state tuition opportunities (which we’ll cover next) for undocumented students. 

In-state tuition 

Another way that DACA students can make college more affordable is to take advantage of in-state tuition. In-state tuition is typically significantly lower than out-of-state tuition. According to NILC, at least 24 states currently allow undocumented students to pay the in-state tuition rate at public colleges and universities. However, students are usually required to have lived in the state for a number of years to qualify for in-state tuition. In-state vs. out-of-state tuition charges are left to the discretion of colleges and universities in most other states. Six states — Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, and South Carolina — have laws specifically prohibiting undocumented students from qualifying for in-state tuition. 

Working  

Work study programs 

DACA recipients are not eligible to apply for federal work-study programs in every state. However, depending on the state, DACA recipients may qualify for work study programs in the states that do have state aid programs for DACA students. For example, DACA students in Minnesota are able to participate in work study.

Non-work study employment opportunities 

Check with your school’s employment office to see what type of job positions are available on campus besides work-study. If you can’t find anything on campus, try finding a job off-campus, landing a paid internship, or looking for other ways to make money

Private loans 

If you’ve exhausted all your other financing options, your next best option is to search for private student loans. Unlike financial aid, loans have to be repaid over time with interest. DACA students are ineligible for federal loans, but there’s certain private lenders such as MPOWER Financing who will consider non-U.S. citizens. Unlike some other private lenders, MPOWER Financing doesn’t require DACA students to have a U.S. citizen cosigner. There’s many other private lenders available, though, so be sure to search for private loans that are best for your situation. And make sure to only borrow what you can reasonably expect to repay once you leave school. 

Bottom line…

Ultimately, it’s possible for DACA students to pay for college even without federal financial aid. 

DACA students should search for private scholarships along with institutional aid offered by specific colleges and universities. They also may be able to attend a public university in their state and qualify for in-state tuition and/or state financial aid. Finding part-time employment or taking out private loans are also funding options. 

Students should also follow policy changes. Laws regarding undocumented immigrants are constantly changing, so staying up to date can help inform decisions about college. If you’re unsure whether you qualify for financial aid or admission, be sure to ask your college admissions counselor, financial aid counselor, or high school counselor. In the end, it’s possible for DACA students to see their college dreams become a reality. 

Frequently asked questions about paying for college as a DACA student

Can DACA students apply for FAFSA?

The FAFSA application is used to determine which students are eligible for state and federal financial aid. Even though DACA students cannot qualify for federal aid, they may be able to qualify for other forms of aid by filling out the FAFSA. In some cases, completing the FAFSA can help students qualify for in-state tuition, receive state financial aid, or apply for scholarships or institutional grants. Whether or not you should fill out the FAFSA largely depends on where you live and what your individual situation looks like. It’s always smart to talk to your school’s financial aid office about filling out the FAFSA.

Can DACA students apply for Pell Grants?

Pell Grants are awarded to students who demonstrate high financial need. DACA students are currently ineligible for Pell Grants because they are a form of federal financial aid. However, that may change, so continue to check for eligibility.

Can DACA student pursue education at all types of institutions?

Yes! DACA students can attend a wide range of educational institutions, including community colleges, vocational schools, and four-year universities. 

Can DACA students apply for graduate school funding?

Some graduate schools may offer funding opportunities such as assistantships and fellowships to DACA students. It is essential to research each graduate program’s policies and financial aid options.