Written by attorney Gerald P. Goulder

In-State Tuition for Undocumented Students

Generally, financial aid is not available for undocumented students and illegal aliens. The majority of federal student aid requires the recipient to be a US citizen or permanent resident (“green card" holder) or an eligible non-citizen (predominantly valid F-1 Student visa holder). A few states allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition rates. There are also a limited number of private scholarships available to undocumented students.

There is a conflict between Federal and State law regarding the eligibility of undocumented students for in-state tuition rates.

The 1996 immigration law (IIRIRA) prohibits illegal aliens from receiving in-state tuition rates at public institutions of higher education. In a nutshell, that means the state and its public institutions must offer the same aid to all legal U.S. residents regardless of residency.

However, some states currently violate this federal law by giving tuition breaks to illegal aliens and charging American citizens from other states higher tuition fees. Texas, California, New York, Utah, Illinois, Washington, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas have passed state laws providing in-state tuition benefits to illegal aliens who have attended high school in the state for three or more years.

Sixteen more states have debated but not passed similar bills: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The Nevada system of higher education does not consider immigration status for in-state tuition, but does require it for a state-sponsored scholarship. Some schools in Georgia provide in-state tuition benefits to illegal aliens. The Texas law also allows illegal aliens to receive state student financial aid.

These state laws attempt to circumvent the federal law by simply not asking students whether they are in the US legally or by basing eligibility for in-state tuition on attendance at or graduation from an in-state high school and not on state residence.

Additional information can be obtained from the National Conference of State Legislatures site (“ In-State Tuition and Unauthorized Immigrant Students.") Information is also available through the National Immigration Law Center (see “Basic Facts About In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrant Students".)


A potential source of financial aid is private scholarships. There are a few private scholarships for undocumented students that do not require the student to be a US citizen or resident or have a social security number in order to apply. Sources for information about these scholarships include FastWeb Scholarship Search and the Mexican American Legal Defense Educational Fund (MALDEF). MALDEF publishes a list of scholarships for undocumented students.

A good resource for California students is Latino College Dollars (LCD). The LCD directory includes several scholarships that do not require US citizenship and are available to undocumented students.

Federal Student Aid If the student is a US Citizen but one or more parents are undocumented, the student is eligible for federal student aid. However, if the parents supply a fake or stolen social security number (SSN) on the form, the student's FAFSA will be rejected when the parent's social security number fails to match. The FAFSA may also be rejected if the parents submit a SSN or Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) that is valid for work purposes only.

The DREAM Act The purpose of the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, also called the DREAM Act, is to help those individuals who meet certain requirements, have an opportunity to enlist in the military or go to college and have a path to citizenship that they otherwise would not have without this legislation. Generally, if the DREAM Act passes Congress undocumented students would be eligible for in-state tuition.

The following is a list of specific requirements one would need in order to qualify for the current version of the DREAM Act. Congress has not passed the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act eligibility requirements include:

  • Entered the United States before the age of 16 (i.e. 15 and younger)
  • Present in the United States for at least five (5) consecutive years prior to enactment of the bill
  • Graduated from a United States high school, or have obtained a GED, or have been accepted into an institution of higher education (i.e. college/university)
  • Be between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of the application
  • Have good moral character

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