Immigrant Student Project

Undocumented Students in Higher Ed

A Study Funded by the Ford Foundation

In 2010, Fairfield University, Santa Clara University, and Loyola University Chicago launched a 2-year study to understand legal and social context, attitudes and social current practices in Jesuit institutions of higher education in the United States regarding undocumented students. It is estimated that only 5-10% of the 65,000 undocumented students that graduate from an American high school each year are able to enter post-secondary education.

Why the Research?

The project seeks to provide presidential leadership in higher education regarding undocumented students, and critically analyze the issues and challenges to bring immigration to the forefront of discussion around policy and access.





Emerging Practices for Undocumented Students

Undocumented Student Ally Safe Space Training

The reality of undocumented students in higher education is drastically different to those of their counterpart classmates. Safe space trainings serve as initiatives to create intentional spaces that acknowledge the social and political complications of being undocumented. Important information to include in undocumented student ally safe space training is the breakdown of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—who qualifies and who does not; a resource packet with scholarships that the university offers that requires no social security number; sensitivity training when talking about immigration issues in the classroom; and questions to avoid asking undocumented students, with the intention to avoid secondary trauma, or PTSD triggers.

View an example of this emerging practice.

Publishing Institutional Statements that are Undocumented Student-Friendly

Undocumented students have been historically told that they “cannot go to college,” which can sometimes discourage them from applying to higher education. A highly effective and emerging practice is for universities to publicly publish statements that state their stand on undocumented students in their institution.

View an example of this emerging practice

Faculty and staff partners

Fairfield University

Project Director - Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., Director, Center for Faith and Public Life & Professor, Sociology & Anthropology
Project Manager - Melissa Quan, Associate Director, Center for Faith and Public Life & Director, Service Learning
Research Director - Kurt Schlichting, Ph.D., Professor, Sociology & Anthropology & E. Gerald Corrigan Chair in the Humanities and Social Sciences
Faculty Researcher - Suzanna Klaf, Ph.D., Associate Director, Center for Academic Excellence
Faculty Researcher - Terry-Ann Jones, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Sociology & Anthropology
Faculty Legal Coordinator - Ana Siscar, J.D., Adjunct Professor, International Studies & Project Manager, Jesuit Humanitarian Action Network Project
Administrative Coordinator - Michael Canaris, Center for Faith and Public Life

Loyola Chicago

Faculty Researcher - Philip Nyden, Ph.D., Professor, Sociology and Director for the Center of Urban Research
Faculty Researcher - Maria Guzman, M.A. Senior Researcher, Center for Urban Research and Learning
Legal Researcher - Mary Bird, J.D., Director of Public Service Programs; Coordinator, Street Law Program, School of Law

Santa Clara University

Faculty Researcher & Institutional Project Coordinator - Laura Nichols, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair, Sociology Department
Faculty Legal Coordinator - Cynthia Mertens, J.D., Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, School of Law

Frequently Asked Questions


Q: Who is considered an undocumented student?
A: An undocumented student is a person living in the United States without benefit of U.S. citizenship or the authorization of the federal government. Many such individuals were brought to the United States as children by parents who either overstayed a legal visa or entered the country without inspection. Undocumented students thus experience the unique challenge of not having had a voice in their migration process. Most have attended K-12 public schools, and many do not learn of their status until adolescence when they prepare to apply for a driver's license and/or apply to college.

Q: Why are Jesuit institutions particularly interested in this issue from a moral perspective?
A: Most institutions of education associated with the Society of Jesus in this country (at both secondary and collegiate levels) were founded with a specific goal of catering to immigrant and first-generation populations. There is a special commitment to and connection with the most marginalized that can be traced to the intentions of their founder, St. Ignatius. Yet, the interest is not only a historical one, for Catholic Social Teaching makes clear that issues of social justice, the common good, the dignity of every human person regardless of birthplace, and the right of people to migrate and seek social advancement are divinely inspired. Jesuit colleges and universities hope to instill in their students, both U.S. citizens and not, the notion of being “men and women for others,” and of displaying cura personalis (care for the entire person) which views education as holistic development of the human person, not merely pre-professional credentialing.

Q: What is the DREAM Act?
A: The DREAM Act is an acronym for The Development, Relief, and Education for AlienMinors Act, and is an American legislative proposal first introduced in the Senate in 2001.  Variations of this bill have been considered over the last decade, with the latest iteration failing to muster Senate support in 2010. One version of the DREAM Act proposes to create a roadmap to permanent legal residence, eventually leading to citizenship, for undocumented residents who came to the United States when younger than 16, have lived here continuously for at least five years, have no criminal record, have graduated from a U.S. high school, and have completed two years of either college or military service.

According to a report released by the Center for American Progress and the Partnership for New American Economy, passing the DREAM Act would add a total of $329 billion to the American economy by 2030; this economic boost occurs because adjusting the legal status of young people leads to higher earnings and subsequently creates a ripple effect throughout the economy.[i]


Q: What is the legality of educating undocumented students?
A: Undocumented students are guaranteed a free K-12 public education under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment pursuant to the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe.

Q: Are undocumented students allowed to attend colleges and universities?
A: Federal law does not prohibit the admission of undocumented students to public universities or colleges; however, states may admit or bar undocumented students from enrolling in public post-secondary institutions as a matter of policy or through legislation.  A vast majority of states do not prohibit the admission of undocumented students to public institutions. Private universities are free to admit undocumented students, regardless of state laws. 

Q: Is a social security number required for admission to college?
A:While many applications ask for a Social Security Number (SSN), there is no legal obligation on the part of universities to require students to provide it. Accordingly, the common application form for undergraduate college admission states that an SSN is required only for U.S. citizens and permanent residents applying for financial aid via FAFSA. Undocumented students should be aware of state and/or federal laws that make it a crime in some circumstances to use a false SSN, which may also qualify as identity theft.[ii]  Moreover, fraudulent claims could subject the undocumented individual to deportation. Note, however, that an individual with Deferred Action status and employment authorization may now be eligible for an SSN.

Q: Must undocumented students identify themselves as such during the college application process?
A: No. Doing so is a personal decision, determined in part by the level of risk a student perceives for oneself and one’s family.

Q: Does a college or university have to report a student’s immigration status?
A: The Department of Homeland Security does not require a college to determine a student’s immigration status or to report it if it comes to light (exception: in the case of a person who came on an international student visa, the school is required to report the termination of the student's academic status which may possibly impact her or his nonimmigrant status).

Q: What are some of the challenges undocumented students face when applying to college?
A1: Social-- Some undocumented students may have been raised in families in which no one has attended college; thus, they may have little knowledge of the application process. In fact, some families may have reason to fear their child seeking higher education – fear that somewhere in the process their own undocumented status will be discovered. The students often live with constant fear that they will be “found out” or that they will return to a home where a parent or sibling has been deported.
A2: Practical--Without an SSN, many undocumented students cannot obtain a driver’s license, which means relying on rides from friends, using public transportation, and not participating in many co-curricular activities that make college life enriching. This also excludes them from majoring in professions that require licensing (e.g. teaching, nursing, accounting), from studying abroad, and from many service-learning options. Some of these practical limitations are addressed by DACA  and the Supreme Court of California (see Legalbelow).
A3: Legal-- The laws that apply to undocumented students vary state-by-state and are subject to continual changes in the political climate. The June 15, 2012 DACA program grants a temporary reprieve from deportation but it does not offer a path to citizenship, permanent legal residency, nor any legal immigration status.  Moreover, it may be modified, superseded, or rescinded any time without notice. The federal DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform continue to be discussed but as yet have not been signed into law.  In June 2013, Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill that has stalled in the House of Representatives. As the President has stated, individuals who would qualify for the DREAM Act deserve certainty about their status. Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer the certainty that comes with a pathway to permanent lawful status. In January 2014, the Supreme Court of California, in the case of In re. Sergio C. Garcia on Admission (S202512), admitted successful undocumented bar examinees to the practice of law in the state of California. The decision is anchored on a California law passed on October 2013 removing the obstacle posed by a federal law on the practice of profession by undocumented immigrants. The decision only allows admission of undocumented immigrants to the practice of law in the State of California but may inspire similar legislations for the practice of law and other professions in other states. 

Financial Aid

Q: Do undocumented students qualify for federal financial aid?
A: Undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial, because of a prohibition under federal law.

Q: Do undocumented students qualify for discounted in-state tuition?
A: Federal law does not prohibit states from providing in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. In-state tuition eligibility varies from state to state. Currently, 20 states allow it, with most requiring some combination of years in residence and graduation from an in-state high school. The 20 states are: 







New Jersey

Rhode Island*



New Mexico




New York






* Decided in a Board of Regents Resolution.

** Decided by popular vote.

***Decided in a Governor’s directive to the state’s Board of Education in favor of DACA grantees.

On the other hand, there are states, e.g.,Georgia, Arizona and Indiana, with laws that explicitly prohibit allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition.

Q: What about other state financial aid?
A: California, Texas, and New Mexico state laws award state financial aid to undocumented students. In addition, California and Illinois have passed laws designed to award DREAM Act private scholarships administered by the state.

Q: What about private scholarships?
A: Private universities may offer both merit-based and other scholarships to undocumented students. Within the Jesuit network, the Jesuit Community at Santa Clara University maintains the Hurtado Scholarship, which provides aid and educational support to undocumented students.

Q: Isn't it unfair to use private scholarship money to help undocumented students when there are U.S. citizen students in equal need of scholarships?
A: Nothing in the Christian tradition tells us that poor citizens should be given a preference over poor non-citizens. On the contrary, both the Old Testament and Jesus Christ urge us to broaden our concept of neighbor to include aliens.  This concept of solidarity, that we are all part of the same human family, has deep roots in our Jesuit identity and in our way of educating students. We have a local and a global responsibility to help the poor.  Schools can differ on the criteria by which they hand out scholarships to the poor but Catholic schools in particular must stand in solidarity with the most marginalized applicants. Sometimes the most marginalized, as well as most qualified, are not U.S. citizens. 

Enrolled Students

Q: Can undocumented students legally work?
A: Under the new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, individuals who receive deferred action from removal may apply for and obtain employment authorization for the period of deferred action if they can establish an economic necessity for employment. Even before the DACA program, some undocumented individuals with recognized unique circumstances, e.g., those who receive temporary protective status (TPS), are allowed to stay in the U.S. and could be authorized to work.

Q: Can undocumented students go out of the country to participate in study abroad or international service learning engagement?
A: International travel is possible for DACA grantees whose subsequent application for advance parole travel documents has been approved. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) stated that it will grant advance parole for “humanitarian, education, or work purposes” to DACA grantees who have a compelling need to travel.[iii] In its January 18, 2013 updated guidance, USCIS explicitly stated that educational purposes include semester-abroad programs and academic research.[iv] Many lawyers refrain from advising students to travel because DACA is discretionary, and there are unresolved and emerging issues about triggering the three- or ten-year unlawful presence bar through travel.[v] The new USCIS guidance will increase the confidence of undocumented students to participate in study-abroad programs.  However, it is advised that students consult with immigration lawyers before filing an application for advance parole. It should be noted that all advance parole requests will be considered on a case by case basis.  There is a specialized procedure for those who have been ordered deported or removed, and immigration matters are, in general, highly complex.

Q: What services are undocumented students likely to need?
A: Although this list could be a long one, some primary services include:

  • Transportation
  • Financial aid
  • Safety from deportation
  • Sense of community
  • Counseling services
  • Legal referrals
  • Identification of people on campus they can go to for help/support
  • Assistance with post-graduation plans
  • Connection to other students on campus who are undocumented and/or alum who are undocumented


Q: What is DACA? What does it do and not do?
A: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a discretionary determination to defer removal of an individual as an act of prosecutorial discretion. The Obama administration describes it as a smart enforcement policy that will help unclog deportation courts and allow better targeting of high priority criminal immigrants.

What does it do?

What does it not do?

  • Defer deportation for 2 years (renewable, but subject to termination at any time)
  • Stop “unlawful presence” clock
  • Enable grantee to obtain:

                   > Work

                   > Social security
                      number, and

                   > Driver’s
                      (depending on
                      state law
                      As of
                      only two
                      – Arizona and
                      licenses to
                      granted DACA

  • May permit travel out of the country on Advance Parole (NO TRAVEL WHILE APPLICATION UNDER REVIEW).
  • Confer valid immigration status
  • Offer path to citizenship nor permanent legal status
  • Qualify students for federal financial aid
  • Give access to health insurance
  • Allow all students to be considered for deferred action (only certain young people qualify
  • Include student’s family
  • Create any right or benefit, substantive or procdedural, enforced by law by any party in any administrative, civil, or criminal matter



Key Findings and Recommendations

Key Findings:

  • There is no consistent policy regarding undocumented students. The consequences are a lingering perception among undocumented students that they are not fully supported.
  • All of thee undocumented students interviewed for this study found the admissions process challenging. From application to graduation, they are worried on who they can trust and if their undocumented status will “slip” and change their life or any family member’s forever.
  • A major barrier for undocumented students is finance, as they cannot receive any federal aid, including federal work-study stipends, and state aid is limited, or non-existent for them.
  • Students reported experiencing discomfort in class if the discussion turned to immigration issues, and most have encountered hostility toward the undocumented from their classmates and some faculty.
  • Staff unanimously agreed that the largest barrier facing undocumented students is post-secondary employment, because without lawful immigration status, job options are severely limited.



  • Designate specific admissions staff who will have the responsibility to work with applicants who are undocumented. When key staff leave the institution, insure this responsibility is passed on to a successor.
  • Provide training for all admissions staff so they understand and can help undocumented students through the admissions process.
  • Modify application forms to be clear that a student does not have to include a social security number or their citizenship status to apply.
  • Release a public statement that the university does not discriminate, nor make application decisions on the basis of immigrant status.

Financial Aid

  • Clearly identify the financial aid that is available for undocumented students.
  • Create a list of outside scholarships that undocumented students can apply for, and assist them in completing such applications.
  • Recognize that the financial challenges these students face continue throughout their education, including the challenge of paying for housing, textbooks, transportation, lunch, lab fees, and more.
  • Explore the creation of a “Common Fund,” initially with outside sources, to provide financial aid to undocumented students at all Jesuit universities.


  • Train student services/ support staff to understand the challenges undocumented and other students with limited financial resources face, particularly how to protect the privacy of undocumented students.
  • Design specific staff to support undocumented students and insure that the students are aware of who they are.
  • Understand that many undocumented students have family obligations that can create significant demands on their time.
  • Provide social and emotional assistance with confidentiality.
  • Insure that undocumented students, who often live at home and commute to campus, can fully participate in University life, both academic and extracurricular.
  • Identify legal resources at the University and in the community that can provide counseling for undocumented students.

Career Counseling

  • Train career placement staff on what undocumented students can do after graduation.
  • Create a database of alumni who were undocumented or who can assist undocumented students with their post‐graduate career.


Local | Legal | Fellowships/Internships| College Support | Advocacy


Connecticut Students for a DREAM (C4D)

CT, affiliate of a national network - United We Dream

A statewide organization that seeks to empower, train and advocate for and with undocumented migrants, families, and allies. C4D runs know-your-rights workshops, college access meetings, undocumented and queer discourse, and mentorship.

International Institute of Connecticut (IICONN)

CT, offices in Bridgeport, Stamford, Hartford, and Derby

"IICONN advocates for fair and equitable treatment of immigrants, refugees and others, and works to increase public awareness of the contributions of foreign-born persons to American culture and values."

Catholic Charities of Fairfield County

CT, affiliate of a national network - Catholic Charities

“The Immigration Services program provides affordable counseling and legal assistance to newcomers throughout Fairfield County regardless of race, religion, sex, creed or economic status. Catholic Charities Immigration Services provides consultation on immigration related problems, and accredited representation at USCIS Immigration appointments.”


Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) Frequently Asked Questions

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

Federal Resource, USCIS

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals allows certain individuals, who meet specific guidelines, to request consideration of deferred action from USCIS. Individuals who receive deferred action will not be placed into removal proceedings or removed from the United States for a specified period of time unless terminated. If you receive deferred action, you may be eligible for employment authorization. Do you qualify?

What to do if you are Arrested by Immigration

City University of New York Network

This page is provided by the CUNY system, and serves as a good legal reference. However, this is NY based, meaning that laws and precautions will differ on a state-by-state basis.


Young People For (YP4)


YP4 is a national fellowship that strives to recruit young leaders from all walks of life and pair them up with a mentor to develop a blueprint for social justice. Mentors include political figures, community organizers, undocumented activists, etc. The fellowship is inclusive, and works to have undocumented and undocuqueer visibility every year, providing financial assistance to attend the local and national trainings.

Dream Summer


  1. Provide leadership development and training for immigrant youth through internships with social justice organizations
  2. Increase the capacity of social justice organizations by providing them with talented and capable immigrant youth activists
  3. Strengthen the commitment within social justice organizations to advance the rights of immigrant youth
  4. Strengthen multi-generational social justice movements
  5. Provide financial awards for immigrant youth to pursue their educational goals

College Support  

Resource Guide: Supporting Undocumented Youth

U.S. Department of Education

A resource guide created by the U.S. Department of Education to help schools, colleges, teachers, and other personnel support the college and career success of undocumented and DACA youth in secondary and postsecondary settings.


Hurtado Scholars Program

University of Santa Clara

A program that provides scholarships to Santa Clara students that has traditionally been able to help undocumented students secure funding at the University.
Contact: Aaron Uchikura
Jesuit Community-Rector's Office: (408) 554-6879

Advising Undocumented Students

College Board, National

A comprehensive document of state, national, and institutional policies regarding undocumented students in higher education. Professionals and high school counselor's are strongly suggested to overview this document to prepare for potential conversations with students that may come forward as undocumented.

Frequently Asked Questions for Undocumented Students - University of California Schools

UC Applicants, National

If you are applying to any of the University of California schools, take a look at the following webpage that answers some basic questions about their allyship with undocumented students.

How to Support College-Bound Undocumented Students: Advice for Parents

National, Educators for Fair Consideration

The following resource page is good for professionals to have and distribute as needed, and also read to understand what they can do for undocumented students and where to allocate support from. The PDF file is also good for students, and for the primary audience, parents.

College Guide for Undocumented Students 

A college guide for undocumented students with information on DACA, applying for college, scholarship and more.




Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN)


Offers leadership opportunities to students of Jesuit institutions, including undocumented students. ISN is an ally to the immigration reform movement and periodically have legislative updates, advocacy campaigns, and opportunities for undocumented students to share their stories and experiences.

Contact Us & Research Acknowledgements

Project Leadership

Project Director Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., Director, Center for Faith and Public Life & Professor, Sociology & Anthropology, Fairfield University
Project Manager Melissa Quan, Associate Director, Center for Faith and Public Life & Director, Service Learning, Fairfield University
Administrative Coordinator Michael Canaris, Ph.D.; Adjunct Professor, Religious Studies, Fairfield University 

Social Research Team

Kurt Schlichting, Ph.D., Professor, Sociology & Anthropology & E. Gerald Corrigan Chair in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Fairfield University (Research Director)
TerryAnn Jones, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Sociology & Anthropology, Fairfield University
Suzanna Klaf, Ph.D., Associate Director, Center for Academic Excellence, Fairfield University
Philip Nyden, Ph.D., Professor, Sociology and Director for the Center of Urban Research, Loyola University Chicago
Maria Guzman, M.A., Senior Researcher, Center for Urban Research & Learning, Loyola University Chicago
Laura Nichols, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology, Santa Clara University Legal Research Team
Ana Siscar, Esq., Fairfield University (Legal Research Coordinator)
Mary Bird, J.D. Director of Public Service Programs; Coordinator, Street Law Program, Loyola University Chicago School of Law
Cynthia Mertens, J.D., Professor of Law, Santa Clara University

More Information

Any questions about the contents of this report should be directed to Richard Ryscavage, S.J. at

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