Virginia Tech®home

Higher Education Policy for Undocumented Students in the United States: Does It Matter? What is Lacking?



Authors as Published

“We don’t expect anybody to be bound by the circumstances of their birth, and the way we deliver on that is making sure that our education system works on behalf of every person who lives here”
President Barack Obama (2015)     

Higher education is often considered necessary to promote economic development and social mobility. Individuals who are able to pursue higher education acquire particular knowledge and capacities that in turn, promote social cohesion, reduce poverty and serve as seedbeds for democratic acculturation (Becker, 1975). Higher education may also result in crime reduction and technological innovation. Post-secondary education also produces intergenerational benefits, understood as the positive externalities created by parents with higher levels of education sharing that knowledge with future generations. In today’s global society, individuals without higher education increasingly cannot compete in some sectors and for many positions in the economy, a fact that prevents them from earning competitive incomes, fully developing their potential capabilities and participating in a wide range of available social, political and cultural goods (Sen, 1999). This argument suggests, counter-culturally, given the dominance of that view as a result of neoliberal norms, that higher education benefits should not be viewed as merely preparing individuals for the existing market and labor order, but as a mechanism that offers individuals capacities that promote social, economic and political mobility, particularly for members of the most socially disadvantaged groups.

Unfortunately, in the United States, a significant population of undocumented students is growing up with access to public education through high school, as required by law, while nonetheless facing legal and financial barriers to attaining additional education when they complete secondary school. An estimated 1.6 million undocumented individuals residing in the U.S. today are between 16-24 years old (Migration Policy Institute, 2016). Approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year (Abrego, 2006; Gonzales, 2007; Passel, 2005). However, only 5 to 10 percent (3,250 to 6,500) of those who do so attend any institution of higher education (Russell, 2011) and far fewer than this total actually complete a collegiate degree (Lindsey, 2014). Indeed, 40 percent of undocumented students who are able to enroll in a college or university do not graduate, compared with 8 percent of all students nationwide (Ortiz, 2015).  According to the Pew Research Center, an estimated 200,000-250,000 undocumented individuals attended colleges in 2017, or about 2 percent of all such students nationwide. Moreover, their matriculation rates are lower than those of other major population groups: Asians, 58 percent; American whites, 42 percent; African Americans, 36 percent; and Hispanic-citizens 32 percent (U.S Department of Education, 2017). This fact is concerning, especially when one takes into account that state, local and national governments invest resources in undocumented immigrants through secondary school. This situation is still more concerning when one realizes that this population, if able to attend post-secondary institutions, could contribute strongly to the economic system and also play, as noted above, key roles in producing a range of social benefits.     In sum, the United States forfeits substantial potential benefits when undocumented students do not go on to complete college degrees.

But access to higher education for undocumented students remains extremely difficult to attain due to multiple legal and socio-economic challenges (Abrego and Gonzalez, 2010; Kaushal, 2008; Lindsey, 2014). Indeed, even though no federal laws prohibit admission of undocumented students to colleges and universities, the national government and some states have banned access and/or sharply reduced the amount of financial aid available for this population. More specifically, the U.S. government has disallowed federal financial assistance for undocumented students, which means that those individuals do not qualify for support available via completion of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This policy is especially discouraging because many undocumented students come from low-income families and therefore tend to evidence higher rates of poverty compared to other immigrant groups and the U.S born population (Abrego and Gonzalez, 2010; Flores and Kaushal, 2008; Suarez-Orozco, et al., 2015).

At the state level, higher education policies are discretionary and diverse. As Cohen, Nguyen and Serna have observed, “undocumented students rely upon piece-meal policies adopted state-by-state or institution-by-institution to determine whether they can access higher education, pay affordable tuition rates, or obtain state level financial aid” (2014, p.4).  Since 2001, 17 states have legislated In-State Resident Tuition (ISRT) policy eligibility for undocumented students.[1]  ISRT typically is one-third to one-half less expensive than Out-of-State Resident Tuition. Ten (10) additional states offer similar programs at their boards of regents’ discretion or for specific groups, such as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) beneficiaries.[2] Among the states that have legislated ISRT for undocumented students, six also offer state-supported financial aid: California, Texas, Washington, New Mexico, Colorado and Minnesota. Unfortunately, three states have explicitly barred undocumented students from enrolling in their public higher education institutions: Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

In the remaining states, which allow access to higher education, but have not adopted ISRT policies, undocumented students must fund their own educations at higher tuition rates, or rely on a limited supply of private scholarships. In any case, it is clear that while ISRT policies and state aid—in the states that have taken these steps—may reduce the financial barriers for undocumented individuals to obtain higher education these students must nonetheless find the resources to finance (or repay) a considerable share of the cost of their education and those sums can be significant for individuals from poor-or-modest-income families. It is also true that these efforts in the states that have adopted them have not themselves boosted enrollment rates. In fact, matriculation for such students has only increased between 2.5 percent and 4 percent on average in the states that grant ISRT (Abrego, 2006; Flores and Chapa, 2009; Flores, 2010; Amuedo-Dorantes and Sparber 2012). While not trivial, this rise is less than what would be expected on the basis of previous findings concerning enrollment responses to changing subsidy amounts for citizen youth (Potochnick, 2014).

Although there are multiple factors that could explain these outcomes, it is surely true that financial barriers are a primary determining element (Perez, 2010). It is also clear that political and institutional factors prevent undocumented students from access to higher education and qualifying for ISRT.  As a group, these individuals lack strong personal networks and social capital in their secondary school contexts (Gonzales, 2009; Serna et al., 2017). Most of them are the first in their families to attend college. Consequently, they ultimately depend heavily on their high school counselors to prepare them for the transition to higher education and, unfortunately, that support is not always available or of high quality (Gonzales, 2009; Perez, 2010). In addition, there are other specific policies that prevent undocumented students from accessing higher education. Among these are the admission requirements and selection criteria that they must meet to qualify for ISRT, related principally to individual and family legal status, length of residence in the U.S. and income level.  Similarly, such private scholarships and financial resources as are available to undocumented students are also often conditioned by legal status, family income and debt capacity, among other criteria. Given this scenario, it is clear that it is not enough to have a policy formally in place to ensure its effectiveness. Rather, implementation efforts must also include elements that allow "realizing" that benefit for the target population, rather than creating burdens that limit access to it. It does not make sense to offer a public benefit of lower tuition, if, at the same time, the conditions for target populations to access that support are not guaranteed. Eliminating legal and socio-economic requirements in the admission process and providing more robust and evenly distributed financial aid and incentives would help to ensure that eligible undocumented individuals can access the assistance to which they are otherwise nominally entitled in many states.

In this context, it is worth emphasizing that equity should be one of the most important political values and aspirations in democratic societies and it should be reflected in the policy-making process.  Equity makes possible a society in which each resident can develop their aspirations and maximize their well-being. Rawls (1971) argued that equity should be understood as justice in democratic systems. He likewise contended that justice should be predicated on a principle of difference and compensation, which establishes that inequalities are not permissible if they do not benefit the most disadvantaged.  This tenet implies that in order to treat all people equally and to provide equal opportunities, governments and society will have to give greater attention to those who have fewer natural talents and who grow up in less favorable social and political situations. Espinoza has contended similarly that equity is, “associated with fairness or justice in the provision of education or other benefits, and it takes individual circumstances into consideration” (2007, p. 345).

These approaches to ensuring justice are interesting since they recognize circumstances for which individuals are not responsible and suggest that these must be addressed in a way that does not affect their access to public benefits. Interestingly, Muñoz and Maldonado (2012) have found that several factors, including class, language, phenotype, geographical location and immigration status result in ‘layers’ of potential obstacles to post-secondary education for undocumented students. It follows that higher education policies should be designed to ensure that all members of society, irrespective of their immigration status, enjoy access to such institutions.

Finally, according to the Center for American Progress, if this nation’s undocumented students could more freely and uniformly obtain access to higher education and gain a path to legal status, they would add a total of $22.7 billion annually to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Because the gains from legalization grow each year, the cumulative increase in GDP of securing this group’s access to higher education across 10 years would be $281 billion (Ortega et al. 2017). This turn would raise the average incomes of every American by between approximately $82 and $273, annually. Finally, these figures speak only to the economic benefits that more effective policies addressing access to higher education for undocumented students could bring to the U.S.  History suggests that ensuring that this group routinely obtains opportunities to enroll in colleges and universities would also bring enormous social and cultural benefits to the country as well.


1 Texas, California, New York, Utah, Illinois, Washington, , Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Maryland, Connecticut, Colorado, Oregon, New Jersey, Minnesota, Florida, Idaho.

2 Rhode Island, Hawaii, Michigan, Virginia, Indiana, Washington DC, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Ohio.


Abrego, L. J. (2006). "’I Can't go to College Because I Don't Have Papers:’ Incorporation Patterns of Latino Undocumented Youth.” Latino Studies, 4(3), 212-231.

Abrego, L., and Gonzales, R. (2010). “Blocked Path, Uncertain Futures: The Postsecondary Education and Labor Market Prospects of Undocumented Latino Youth.” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 15, 144-157.

Amuedo-Dorantes, C., and C. Sparber. (2012). “In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants and its Impact on College Enrollment, Tuition Costs, Student Financial Aid, and Indebtedness,” Regional Science and Urban Economics, 49, 2014, 11-24.

Becker, Gary S. (1975). “Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, With Special Reference to Education.” Second Edition. Columbia University Press, New York and London.

Espinoza, Oscar (2007).  “Solving the Equity–Equality Conceptual Dilemma: A New Model for Analysis of the Educational Process, Educational Research, 49:4, 343-363, DOI: 10.1080/00131880701717198

Flores, S., and Kaushal, N. (2008). “In-State Tuition for the Undocumented: Education Effects on Mexican Young Adults.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 27, 771-792.

Flores, S. M., and Chapa, J. (2009). “Latino Immigrant Access to Higher Education in a Bipolar Context of Reception.” Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 8(1), 90-109

Flores, S.M. (2010). “State Dream Acts: The Effect of In-State Resident Tuition Policies and Undocumented Latino Students.” The Review of Higher Education 33(2): 239-283.

Gonzales, R. G. (2007). “Wasted Talent and Broken Dreams: The Lost Potential of Undocumented Students.” Immigration Policy in Focus, 5(13): 1 – 14. Retrieved from, January 28, 2019.

Gonzales, R. G. (2009). “Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented Students”. New York: The College Board: 1-32. Retrieved from January 28, 2019.

Kaushal, N. (2008). “In-state Tuition for the Undocumented: Education Effects on Mexican Young Adults.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 27(4): 771-792.

Lindsey, Kevin (2014). “Access to Education: Challenges and Opportunities for Immigrant Students.” First Focus, Center for the Children of Immigrants: 1 - 12. Retrieved from, January 28, 2019.

Migration Policy Institute, 2016, retrieved from January 28, 2019.

Muñoz, S. M. and Maldonado, M. M., (2012). “Counterstories of College Persistence by Undocumented Mexicana Students: Navigating Race, Class, Gender, and Legal Status.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 25(3), 293-315.

Obama, Barack. (2015) “Remarks by the President on America’s College Promise”, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, January, 2015, January 28, 2019.

Ortega, Francesc; Edwards, Ryan; and Wolgin, Philip (2017), “The Economic Benefits of Passing the Dream Act,” Center for American Progress, 1-14. Retrieved from, January 28, 2019.

Ortiz, Gabe (2015), “New Report From CAP: For Many Undocumented Students, Access To A College Education Is Simply Not A Reality”. Retrieved from American Voice., January 28, 2019.

Passel, Jeffrey. (2005). “Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population.” Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center., 1-11. Retrieved from, January 28, 2019.

Perez, W. (2010). “Higher Education Access for Undocumented Students: Recommendations for Counseling Professionals.” Journal of College Admission, 206, 32-35.

Potochnick, S. (2014). “How States Can Reduce the Dropout Rate for Undocumented Immigrant Youth: The Effects of In-State Resident Tuition Policies,” Social Science Research, 45: 18-32.

Rawls, John. (1971a). “A Theory of Justice.”  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Russell, Alene (2011). “State Policies Regarding Undocumented College Students: A Narrative of Unresolved Issues, Ongoing Debate and Missed Opportunities”.  American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 1-10. Retrieved from, January 28, 2019.

Sen Amartya, (1999), Development as Freedom, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Serna, G. R., Cohen, J. M., and Nguyen, D. H. K. (2017). “State and Institutional Policies on In-State Resident Tuition and Financial Aid for Undocumented Students: Examining Constraints and Opportunities.” Education Policy Analysis Archives25(18): 1-22. Retrieved from, January 28, 2019.

Suárez-Orozco, Carola and Katsiaficas, Dalal & Birchall, Olivia and Alcantar, Cynthia and Hernandez, Edwin and Garcia, Yuliana and Michikyan, Minas and Cerda, Janet and Teranishi, Robert. (2015). “Undocumented Undergraduates on College Campuses: Understanding Their Challenges and Assets and What It Takes to Make an Undocufriendly Campus.” Harvard Educational Review. 85. 427-463. 10.17763/0017-8055.85.3.427.

U.S. Department of Education (2017), “Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups.” Report 2017: 1-180. Retrieved from, January 28, 2019.

Andrea Briceno M.

Andrea Briceno M. is a Ph.D. Student in Public Administration and Public Affairs at Center for Public Administration and Policy, Virginia Tech. She received her Master’s degree in Government and Public Policy from the Externado University of Colombia in partnership with the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University, New York. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Economics from the National University of Colombia. Her research interests focus on higher education policy for undocumented students in the United States. As part of her research assistantship, Andrea has developed the Digital Research Collection of Higher Education Policy for Minority Students in the United States. Actually, the collection contains 650 open access resources that focus on policy analysis of access, educational attainment, socioeconomic barriers, and normative aspects of equity and educational opportunity for minority students. She enjoys spending time with her two little children, reading, discussing political issues, and good coffee. 

Publication Date

January 31, 2019