Higher education possible for undocumented students

People walk up Bascom Hill as the tree foliage begins to change colors during autumn. At right is the Law School building. In the background is the Wisconsin State Capitol building dome.Photo by Jeff Miller, UW–Madison Communications


At UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies, we advise returning adult students with varied backgrounds, life experiences and educational histories. Some of these students are undocumented, while others are “DACAmented” — recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that permits foreign-born individuals to attend school, work and live lawfully in the United States (though they are still considered undocumented).

Ace Hilliard
Ace Hilliard

While no federal law prohibits U.S. colleges from admitting undocumented students, state and institutional policies and processes vary widely. Fear of disclosing one’s status and the ongoing limbo of DACA’s status in federal courts only add to the uncertainty and complexity of attending college for these students.

Still, attending college as an undocumented student is not impossible. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey, more than 400,000 undocumented students are enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, comprising nearly 2 percent of all college students. Of these, says the American Immigration Council, approximately one-third are recipients of DACA.

Erika Rosales, former director of the Center for Dreamers at UW–Madison, says that there are a few things undocumented and DACAmented students should consider before applying to college.

Know your status

Erika Rosales, former director of the Center for Dreamers at UW–Madison.
Erika Rosales

Rosales says it’s not uncommon for students to learn they are undocumented or DACAmented during their college application process. “Whether it’s because of fear or wanting to protect their children, parents don’t always talk to their children about their status,” Rosales says. “And when it comes to applying to college, there are critical differences for undocumented students who are DACA recipients versus those who are not.” DACA recipients, for example, receive a valid social security number, work authorization and driver’s license — all of which make the day-to-day easier during and after college.

Research your options

Because states and institutions have varying policies on admitting undocumented students, Rosales recommends reviewing college websites for specific resources they may offer. Admissions, student affairs offices and equity centers may also have information tailored to undocumented students. “The presence of such resources can indicate that a school is prepared to help its undocumented student population,” she says. She recommends contacting them directly.

Determine cost

In many states — including Wisconsin — undocumented students are identified as international students and are ineligible for less costly in-state tuition or federal student financial aid. Some scholarships and grants are available to undocumented students to help cover costs; other students work or may find housing assistance to free up funds for education. Rosales says online schools can be a good option as they often offer a flat tuition rate, while technical schools may be less expensive and offer more personalized support.

Rosales notes that any amount of higher education for undocumented students can be a boon to the economy and the workforce. “Undocumented individuals are typically multilingual and multicultural, and can bring a deep understanding to their profession or field.” Completing just a few higher education courses can change the trajectory for an undocumented student, she adds. “Education changes people, which changes communities, which changes society. It can have a major impact on all of us.”

(Note, UW’s Center for Dreamers closed in October 2023 due to grant funding expiration. The website and its resources currently remain available at dreamers.law.wisc.edu.)

Ace Hilliard, an educational advisor, can be reached at ace.hilliard@wisc.edu.