Center for American Progress

The Obstacles Unauthorized Students Face in Postsecondary Education

The Obstacles Unauthorized Students Face in Postsecondary Education

Colleges and universities can help curb some of the substantial disadvantages that unauthorized students confront when attempting to attain postsecondary education.

Students listen to a debate over a bill seeking to offer in-state tuition rates to unauthorized public college students, in Nashville, Tennessee, April 2017. (AP/Erik Schelzig)
Students listen to a debate over a bill seeking to offer in-state tuition rates to unauthorized public college students, in Nashville, Tennessee, April 2017. (AP/Erik Schelzig)

Colleges and universities, and the education they provide, are critical avenues for social mobility and economic success in the United States. Each year, about 65,000 unauthorized students who have been in the United States for five years or more graduate from high school, yet only an estimated 7,000 to 13,000 enroll in college overall. These numbers speak to the significant obstacles that unauthorized college—and aspiring college—students face, particularly around college affordability and access. While some colleges and universities have started to recognize the needs of these students, plenty of changes still need to be made to support unauthorized students and help them reach their full potential.

Below are three principal barriers facing unauthorized college students today, as well as recommendations for what schools can do to help combat these issues.

High cost of tuition

The cost of tuition is a significant barrier for unauthorized students to access college. Unauthorized students are not eligible to receive federal financial aid to ameliorate the cost of their tuition. This includes federal grants, federal loans, and federal work-study programs.

Many states have recognized this problem. As a result, 20 states and the District of Columbia have passed tuition equity laws or policies that offer unauthorized students the ability to pay for public colleges and universities at in-state rates. These include California, Texas, Florida, New York, and New Jersey—the states with the highest populations of unauthorized immigrants. Some states provide in-state tuition only to those who have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protection. Since President Donald Trump rescinded DACA in September 2017, DACA recipients in these states will likely face prohibitive tuition costs. Ángel Cabrera, the president of George Mason University, noted that the university provides in-state tuition to more than 300 DACA recipients, but after January 2018, about half of them will lose their status and may be forced to leave George Mason because they will no longer be able to afford their studies. On the other hand, six states—such as Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana—have passed legislation prohibiting unauthorized students from receiving in-state tuition.

To support unauthorized students, colleges and universities should ensure that private scholarships and institutional aid are accessible to all students who need support, including unauthorized students. For instance, many colleges offer need-based scholarships to those who demonstrate financial difficulties under a variety of definitions. These colleges should explore extending need-based support to unauthorized students if they do not do so already. Additionally, the 20 states that have remained neutral on passing tuition equity laws should consider standing alongside unauthorized students by supporting their access to higher education.

Inability to afford or access housing

The cost of housing can also be a major obstacle to attaining a college degree. In 2016, the College Board found that the average costs for room and board at four-year public schools and private schools were $10,440 and $11,890, respectively. Unauthorized students face unique barriers to accessing student housing and need tailored information.

On-campus housing is generally limited to the academic year, which typically causes unauthorized students to confront housing instability during prolonged school breaks. In summer 2017, Luis Rosales, a third-year undergraduate at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, encountered this situation after his first academic year. Rosales was forced to move back home even though his family’s housing was—and remains—unstable. When asked in a recent interview with the author to describe his situation, Rosales stated, “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know where we were going to live, and on top of that, I was being offered an internship in D.C.” He likely would have been forced to give up his internship if he did not find housing.

Fortunately, Rosales qualified for a summer fellowship that provided him housing, which allowed him to stay in Washington, D.C., and pursue his internship and future career goals. Georgetown can foster this initiative because it collects private funds to provide for such needs. But students at other schools may not be so lucky. Colleges and universities across the country should follow Georgetown’s lead in ensuring that their students can secure housing over school breaks and that their financial aid includes funds for housing.

Furthermore, it is likely that the immigration status of unauthorized students will be a hindrance in accessing safe housing. A Generation Progress report recommended that colleges and universities should take steps to prevent the use of an immigrant’s status as a basis to deny them on-campus and off-campus housing affiliated with the school. In times when institutions have knowledge of students’ status, they should keep it confidential.

Increased mental health risk

In addition to financial accessibility, unauthorized students face a wide range of personal challenges that weigh heavily on their mental health. A study by the Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education at UCLA, for example, found that unauthorized students experience high levels of clinical anxiety. The study found that 29 percent of males and 37 percent of females had anxiety scores that were above the clinical cutoff level, which is 4 percent to 9 percent above average. This study also found that unauthorized students experienced feelings of isolation because they did not know who to trust. They also felt that they were treated negatively on campus because of their immigration status. Overall, three-fourths of the students that were surveyed reported that they live in constant fear of being detained or deported.

Despite this increased mental health risk, many unauthorized immigrants are unable to qualify for affordable health insurance because of their status—and are unable to afford private health insurance. This leaves unauthorized college students with a choice between remaining without coverage or purchasing student health coverage, which is sometimes made available by their institutions regardless of status and tends to be more affordable.

Colleges and universities should aid their students by offering counseling and psychiatric services regardless of immigration or health insurance status. In doing so, these institutions should also hire professional staff members that understand the concerns of unauthorized students and the issues they constantly face.


Recently, many colleges and universities have stepped up their efforts to support DACA recipients and push for passage of permanent legislative protection for Dreamers. However, all postsecondary schools need to commit to supporting their unauthorized student populations with the services and resources they need to succeed. These institutions should be able to guarantee the academic success of all their students. As part of this guarantee, they should recognize and combat the issues that pertain to those without legal status and help them access a quality education.

Christian Juarez is a former intern for Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Christian Juarez