5 Tips For Advising Undocumented Students About Financial Aid

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By Katy Hopkins, Communications Staff 

The plight of prospective college-going undocumented students is easing slowly but surely. At least 17 states have passed a version of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, allowing qualifying students without citizenship status to pay in-state tuition at public colleges in the state in which they reside. 

But most of those states do not also extend state financial aid eligibility to undocumented students, so college remains an expensive endeavor for many. 

And even in states that have passed a version of the DREAM Act, undocumented students could face the possibility of having their in-state tuition privileges revoked. In Nebraska, for example, some members of the state legislature want to repeal the statute that grants certain undocumented students in-state tuition eligibility. 

“The state has this law on the books, but there is definitely an undercurrent of opposition,” said Mary Sommers, financial aid director at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and NASFAA board member. “Over the past several years, there have been a couple of different attempts to rescind it by various members of the legislature, and we have fought it pretty aggressively.”

The tenuous political landscape demands vigilance and preparation by financial aid administrators who work with undocumented students. Use these five tips for effective advising, even in tough circumstances.

1. Research the political landscape of your state and university: Before you can help students, you need to know the political realities and possibilities in your state.

First, get to know your state’s current laws and regulations. If your state has passed a version of the DREAM Act, make sure you know eligibility requirements. In California, for example, undocumented students must have attended a high school in the state for at least three years, and graduated with a high school diploma or GED, among other requirements. 

“It’s really important to understand your laws and have good legal advice to understand what you can and cannot do,” Sommers said.

It’s also crucial to follow political tides and be aware of any possibility of your state’s DREAM Act being overturned (or passed). If your university or university system grants in-state tuition to undocumented students without an official go-ahead from the state, realize that a change in administration leadership could also mean a change in the rates these students pay. 

2. Mobilize local high school officials: Some students only find out they’re undocumented when they begin to fill out the FAFSA, Sommers says, but engaged principals and guidance counselors can play a big role in helping undocumented students know their options well before finding funding becomes a pressing issue. 

In Nebraska, Sommers has seen a marked improvement in the knowledge of students she works with, thanks to better counseling before they reach her office.

“High school principals and guidance counselors have become very savvy” and know who’s undocumented, Sommers says. “These students are just becoming more aware of their circumstances.”

Connect with local high school officials to see what counseling they’re providing about funding options, and encourage them to work with undocumented students early. High school officials could also help to advocate for undocumented students’ rights, as has been the case in Nebraska, Sommers says.

3. Empower students: Without access to state and federal financial aid, undocumented students may face a bigger challenge than some of their peers when paying for college. Encourage students to tap into their networks and communities for assistance—early and often, if possible. 

Consider stressing that undocumented students will need to be creative, hold themselves to a high standard, and work as hard as they can to find funding, Sommers says. “You have to tell everyone you can that you want to go to college and that you need help,” she advises students. 

4. Tap into your own network: Students aren’t the only ones who should be maximizing their connections. The fact that this is a challenge in almost every state means financial aid administrators have thousands of peers who likely are dealing with the same issues. Talk to others at your institution and at nearby schools for helpful hints, anecdotes, and best practices they’ve developed along the way. You can also use your MyNASFAA profile to connect with colleagues near and far. 

5. Utilize NASFAA resources: In addition to MyNASFAA, maximize your membership by using NASFAA’s other offerings, such as research on state-level DREAM Acts, a tip sheet for working with undocumented students, and Today’s News, which often includes headlines on DREAM Act activity. 

The Advocacy Pipeline events, during which the NASFAA’s leadership and committee members visit with legislative staff members on Capitol Hill, have proven to be an especially helpful tool when advocating for DREAMers rights, Sommers says. “The Advocacy Pipeline that NASFAA gives us is so important,” Sommers says. “We don’t have to all go by ourselves to our Congressmen and say, ‘Please consider [the DREAM Act];’ when I do that, I do it with NASFAA behind me with all the resources and support [it offers].” 

You can advocate at the state level by identifying and writing to your Congressperson in the House of Representatives or your U.S. Senator about how their constituents—the students and families you serve— would benefit from the DREAM Act and other programs for undocumented students. Use NASFAA’s 2011 Senate testimony, resources related to “deferred action” for the undocumented, and this 2011 state-by-state policy analysis as resources in crafting your message. 

Letters expressing support or concern for proposed programs or legislation are most effective if you have students provide personal stories about how they were affected by student aid policies currently in place. If you do write a letter, please share your correspondence with NASFAA so we can better work with your Congressional delegates.   

What are your tips for working with undocumented students? Keep the conversation going in the comments section below.

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