Around this time last year, Erika Villaseñor got into the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and immediately faced the challenge of figuring out how to pay the nearly $80,000 yearly cost to attend. Although paying for school is an overwhelming task for most admitted students, it was particularly difficult for Villaseñor, because she was undocumented. Ineligible for US federal grants or loans because of her status, she was forced to rely on limited Berkeley Law scholarships, the few private scholarships available to undocumented students, and a page to make up her $50,000 funding gap. 

Some schools offer more support. Norma Torres Mendoza, a master’s in public policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School, is also undocumented but has had a very different experience. The Kennedy School met her financial needs by providing her scholarships regardless of her status. That decision has paid off extremely well, both for Torres Mendoza and for Harvard. Torres Mendoza is the president of the Harvard Latino Student Alliance, co-programs director of the Harvard Kennedy School Democratic Caucus, and coordinator of the Public Policy and Leadership Conference at the Kennedy School.  

Norma Torres Mendoza holds a sign showing her support for the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act. (Photo by Ricardo Aca)

As Torres Mendoza’s success suggests, universities can greatly benefit from recruiting and retaining the talent of undocumented students. According to the advocacy group Educators for Fair Education, these students are some of the most entrepreneurial and industrious people in the country. Despite a persistent fear of deportation and separation from their family, social stigma, and poverty, many undocumented students persevere, manage to excel academically, and find innovative ways to at least partially fund their education. According to the Pew Research Center, about 61 percent of undocumented students that arrived in the United States before age 14 attend college.

Unfortunately, most undocumented students’ experience seeking funding is more like Villaseñor’s than Torres Mendoza’s. Undocumented students remain ineligible for federal financial aid. They cannot take out federal loans, and have less access to grants and scholarships. And university financial aid offices often don’t know how to help, can’t help, or won’t help them find the money to attend. 

Recently, victories in state legislatures have somewhat reduced the tuition burden on undocumented students, allowing them to apply for state financial aid or pay lower, in-state tuition rates. Seventeen states now allow undocumented students who meet residence requirements to pay in-state tuition. In 2015, Connecticut passed one of the most generous laws, letting students receive in-state tuition if they attended a Connecticut high school for two years (down from four) and graduated from that school. A growing number of policymakers and advocates understand that for many students, paying in-state tuition rates without some form of aid still precludes them from attending college. Currently, however, only four states—California, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington—allow qualified undocumented students to receive state financial aid. 

As a first-generation college student from a low-income family myself, I know how disappointing it can be to see the price tags on acceptance letters from selective colleges such as New York University and the University of California, Berkeley. When I received my college acceptance letters in 2006, my entire household of four survived on much less per year than the $26,000 or $53,000 these colleges charged for tuition, room, and board at the time. Luckily, my fate was not decided by those numbers but by the nine numbers on my social security card, which labeled me a human, not an “alien.” These numbers allowed me to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and scholarship applications, and to take my pick from a long list of schools, regardless of their sticker price.

My undocumented peers who also got into top schools but lacked these nine numbers were ineligible to apply for most grants, scholarships, and loans. Some bravely went to a university anyway, taking leaves between semesters to earn money. Many started at community college to work and save money before transferring to a four-year institution. Others did not go to college at all—great minds, left untouched and untapped. These days, many undocumented students, faced with the rising costs of higher education, turn to crowdfunding websites to help pay for their studies. These efforts essentially pick up the slack for the policymakers and administrators who should be doing more to address undocumented students’ financial needs. 

University of California, Berkeley, students protest the expiration of a $5 million fund for undocumented students across the University of California system, April 16, 2016. (Photo by Adrienne Shih, courtesy of The Daily Californian)

Legislators at the local and federal levels, as well as universities and social sector advocates, must take urgent action to ensure that these students have greater access to financial aid. First, we need to make all scholarship programs accessible to undocumented students. Currently, most private scholarships are available only to US citizens and documented residents. Second, universities and advocates should take action to offer more aid to undocumented students, independent of government funding and private scholarships. Universities and advocates should fundraise for scholarships specifically earmarked for undocumented students, facilitate institutional loans, and engage in advocacy efforts to make sure that undocumented students have access to the same amount of potential funds as the rest of their classmates. Third, all financial aid officers should be well-informed about how financial aid works for undocumented students, up to date with changing laws and institutional policies, and active in offering support systems for students.

Universities, nonprofits, and scholarship programs that work toward making higher education more accessible to low- and middle-income students must make sure that undocumented students have the same access. Villaseñor is now an active leader at Berkeley Law, but if she hadn’t spent time and energy fundraising for her tuition, the law school might have missed out on her many contributions as vice president of the Berkeley Law student government, co-chair for La Raza Law Students Association, and submissions editor for the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal. All admitted students deserve the real opportunity to attend institutions that accept them. Without more efforts to provide that opportunity, academic institutions will fail to recruit, retain, and develop top talent, while the rest of us lose out on the many contributions that undocumented students can make to our society.