The school year has started, and many college students are returning to campuses nationwide, including undocumented and DACA-eligible students.

Data from the 2021 American Community Survey (ACS) and analyzed by the American Immigration Council reveals that 408,000 of these students are undocumented, representing 1.9% of all college students in the country. About a third of undocumented students, or 141,000 people, are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative or eligible for DACA, making up 0.7% of the entire student body.

Undocumented Students’ Field of Study

With many states facing severe shortages of healthcare and STEM workers, enrollment trends of undocumented students in U.S. colleges and universities are noteworthy.

In 2021, 33.6% of undocumented graduate students and 37.1% of DACA-eligible graduate students had a STEM background. About 23% of undocumented and 30.5% of DACA-eligible graduate students specialized in healthcare-related fields. These students are studying to meet the talent needs in the workforce, supporting both their families and the broader economy.

Demographics of Undocumented Students

Undocumented college students also reflect the diversity of the U.S. immigrant population. Among them, 45.7% are Hispanic, 27.2% are AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander), 13.8% are Black, and 10% are white, and 3.4% fall under other categories. For those eligible for DACA, 68.8% are Hispanic, 16.5% are AAPI, 5.7% are Black, and 6.6% are white.

These students also attend colleges across the country. The top five states with the highest share of undocumented students within in the state are Texas (3.3%), New Jersey (3.1%), Florida (3.1%), California (2.8%), and Maryland (2.7%). Over 195,000 undocumented college students attend institutions outside of these five states.

Most undocumented students in U.S. colleges and universities have resided in the country since childhood or adolescence, attending local primary and secondary schools. Among college students eligible for DACA, 85.2% arrived as young children (ages 0-9), and 14.8% as adolescents (ages 10-16). Among all undocumented students, over a third (34 percent) arrived before age 10, while 42.2% came between the ages of 10 and 16.

Some undocumented adults, who arrived in the U.S. as older adolescents or adults, are also part of the undocumented student population, pursuing higher education and making valuable contributions to their communities. On average, undocumented college students who arrived in the U.S. as adults have lived in the country for approximately eight years.

Barriers and Access to Higher Education

Undocumented students often face hurdles in higher education, notably the inability to access federal financial aid. However, many state policies have been implemented to support them. In 2001, Texas pioneered offering in-state tuition and certain state financial aid to these students. Since then, a growing number of states have expanded in-state tuition and financial aid to undocumented students.

Analysis from the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration (PAHEI) found that 24 states offer in-state tuition to eligible undocumented students, with 18 providing state financial aid. An additional 11 states offer limited in-state tuition, with some catering only to DACA recipients or granting tuition benefits on institutional bases. Still, many states have not passed inclusive policies with some states like Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama explicitly barring undocumented students from obtaining in-state tuition or even enrolling in certain public institutions.

The evolving landscape of state policies underscores the complexity and disparity of access to higher education for undocumented students across the nation.

The potentials of undocumented college students are undeniable. They bring diversity, resilience, and ambition to campuses nationwide. Despite the challenges they face, from policy restrictions to financial barriers, their pursuit of education demonstrates a commitment to self-improvement and community contribution. As the landscape of state policies continues to shift, it remains imperative for educational institutions and policymakers to recognize and support the invaluable potential these students offer.