Law in Contemporary Society

Undocumented Students Still Barred From Higher Education

-- By AimeePacheco - 24 May 2022


In 2022, undocumented students are still barred from higher education across the United States. While the Migration Policy Institute estimates that there are 90,000 undocumented students that graduate from high school every year, undocumented students make up only 2% of all students in higher education in the United States. In Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court decided that undocumented school children (K-12) could claim the protection afforded by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 102 S. Ct. 2382 (1982). While Plyler v. Doe was a monumental decision in establishing children’s right to an education, regardless of immigration status, this right did not extend to postsecondary education.

Federal Policy

Two major laws inhibit undocumented students’ ability to attend college: the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and Section 401 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA). PRWORA makes undocumented people ineligible for any Federal public benefits, including postsecondary education and other types of funds from the United States. 8 U.S.C. 1611. Section 505 of the IIRIRA prohibits preferential treatment, meaning states cannot provide an undocumented student a higher education benefit without providing that same benefit to U.S citizens in the same circumstances. 8 USC 1623. However, it does not prohibit states from providing in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. States that have modified policy to allow undocumented students to have in-state tuition rates, comply with this requirement in Section 505 of the IIRIRA.

Financial Barriers

Because of these policies, undocumented students in various states must pay out-of-state tuition rates, despite living and going to school in their resident states. This is a problem for many students, as out-of-state tuition rates can be 3-4 times more than the in-state-tuition rates. This creates a substantial financial burden for undocumented students. With these rates, it is no wonder many of these students choose to either study outside of their home state or not enroll into college at all. These policies affect thousands of people in the state. Not only are these policies harmful to students themselves but also to their families, communities, their states, and our country which could benefit from having a more educated workforce.


State Policy

Given these federal policies and the unlikeliness of either law being repealed, it is more likely to see a difference in undocumented students’ access to a postsecondary education through changes in the state and at a more local level.

In the Higher Education Immigration Portal’s analysis of in-state tuition and state financial aid policies for undocumented students across all 50 states and D.C., inclusivity and policy effectiveness are measured in seven categories: comprehensive access (18 states and D.C.), accessible (4 states), limited (5 states), limited to DACA (7 states), no state policy (8 states and P.R.), restrictive (5 states), and prohibitive enrollment (3 states). Fortunately, the largest category is “comprehensive access,” with 18 states and D.C., which Higher Education Immigration defines as having policies that provide statewide access to in-state tuition and at least some form of state financial aid or scholarships for the state’s resident DACA recipients and undocumented students.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, the most prohibitive states for enrollment, with policies actively barring enrollment in all or certain public institutions for the state’s undocumented students. While the 8 states within the restrictive and prohibitive enrollment categories are not likely to change state policy anytime soon, those 14 states and P.R. in the middle categories, have the potential to move in a positive direction. If a state is already open to giving DACA recipients more access, they may be more open to taking steps in expanding. Furthermore, states with “accessible” coverage are already open to acknowledging students’ ties to the state. These changes have not happened through state legislation alone. Hawaii, Nevada, Oklahoma, Iowa, Michigan, and Montana’s Boards of Regents have all taken active roles to expand in-state tuition. Apart from the Board of Regents, states like North Carolina, have had multiple other entities get involved with the policies, such as the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges and the North Carolina Attorney General’s office. While those involvements were prohibitive, other states have the potential to influence these other entities to take action.

Local Solutions

While the clearest solutions would be the repeal of Section 505 and Section 404 of PWORA or the passing of tuition equity bills, it’s important to acknowledge that even a state policy change allowing undocumented students to receive in-state tuition, may not have as much of an impact for many students who cannot afford in-state tuition. Change can happen from a local level. High Schools should be required to compile state and local resources to share with students on high school websites and guidance counselor offices for students to easily access. This would require teachers, counselors, and other staff to be trained on how to obtain the most up-to-date research and information on resources, scholarships, and other opportunities for students. They can start by reading United We Dream's "Guide for Teachers Helping Dreamers" and Informed Immigrant's regularly updated "Guide for Undocumented High School and College Students." Furthermore, county school boards should be in communication with groups that specifically work with undocumented youth — such as Freedom University, Georgia Students for Public Higher Education (GSPHE), and Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance (GUYA), in Georgia — in order to make a report and learn more about the needs that these students have. These local solutions are much more likely to impact the lives of undocumented youth seeking a postsecondary education.


Ballerini, Victoria, and Miriam Feldblum. “Immigration Status and Postsecondary Opportunity: Barriers to Affordability, Access, and Success for Undocumented Students, and Policy Solutions.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 80, no. 1, 2021, pp. 161–186.,

“Basic Facts About In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrant Students.” National Immigration Law Center |, National Immigration Law Center, 15 Mar. 2021,

Frum, Jennifer L. “Postsecondary Educational Access for Undocumented Students: Opportunities and Constraints.” American Academic, vol. 3, pp. 81–108.,

Geiman, J. “Promoting Equity for Undocumented Students in Postsecondary Education.” CLASP, Center for Law and Social Policy, Inc., 1 Apr. 2022,

Hultin, Suzanne, and Michelle Liu. “Undocumented Student Tuition: Overview.” NCSL, National Conference of State Legislatures, 9 Sept. 2021,

“Legislative Recommendations Regarding Immigrant Students, Higher Education Access, Federal Financial Aid, and Professional and Occupational Licensure.” Presidents' Alliance On Higher Education and Immigration, Presidents' Alliance, 1 Feb. 2021,

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r5 - 05 Jun 2022 - 01:52:05 - AimeePacheco
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