I am undocumented- How do I pay for graduate school? (Part 1 of 2)


Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 11.58.16 PM This is definitely one of the top questions that I get asked by undocumented students who are considering going on to graduate school. I understand your concerns—as an undocumented student myself, I, too, worried about paying for my bachelor’s, master’s, and now my doctorate degree. In fact, when I was in my second year of college, I was almost forced to make the difficult decision of dropping out of college because I couldn’t afford the increasing tuition costs. In Part 1 of this post, I will share with you key pieces of advice that can help you pay for graduate school as an undocumented student, including state financial aid, scholarships, and much more.

1. Ask yourself: “Do I want to pursue a Master’s and/or a Ph.D.?”

Ph.D. programs are more likely to be fully funded; financial packages can often include tuition and fees, and a yearly stipend (often connected to a Teaching and/or Research Assistantship, and ranging from $14,000 to $31,000 depending on the school, department, program, and funds available of course). If you know that a Ph.D. is your ultimate goal to reach the career of your dreams, it doesn’t hurt to apply to both Master’s and Ph.D. programs. While M.A. programs are rarely fully funded, they tend to be shorter (1-2 years to complete, as opposed to 3+ years for a Ph.D., again depending on the school/department/program you are considering). Also, a Ph.D. is not for everyone, for various financial, health, and career reasons so don’t feel pressured to apply to both, but definitely keep all of this in mind as you think about your options.

When I was first thinking about going to graduate school during my third year as an undergrad student, my mentor recommended that I apply to both Master’s and Ph.D. programs. I knew that I wanted to become a Professor so a Ph.D. was my ultimately goal. I was not admitted to a Ph.D. program at the time, but I was admitted to San Diego State University (SDSU) and Loyola University in Chicago for a Master’s in Sociology. And while I could potentially apply to Loyola University for my Ph.D. after completing their 2-year Master’s program, I decided to attend SDSU for several reasons; the biggest one being financial circumstances. Neither of the universities could fully fund my Master’s, but at SDSU I could at least save on rent, qualify for in-state tuition (and later state financial aid- read more below), and most importantly, I could stay connected to my local network who helped me tremendously, both emotionally and financially. Now that I am at Harvard University pursuing my doctorate, I do receive a financial package (tuition and fees are covered, and I receive a yearly stipend for some years).

2. Consider applying to both public and private universities 

Many times I have been told that private universities offer much better funding packages to undocumented students because their funds are not coming from the government; they have more grants and private donors to draw from. Thus, giving them some of the freedom to use their money towards undocumented students that the public universities do not have. I took this advice and applied to several private universities for both my Master’s and again, for my Ph.D. And while in some instances it is true, there are some private universities that offer comprehensive funding packages to undocumented students, it is not always the case. As I mentioned in my first piece of advice, in 2011, I got accepted to SDSU (a public institution) and Loyola University (a private institution), and neither university could offer me financial aid*.

All of this to say, consider applying to both private and public universities. I find that a lot of the funding depends not only on the type of institution you are attending (private v. public), but also the department and program that you are in and the funds that they do or don’t have available.

(*NOTE: This does not mean that these universities don’t offer any financial aid to undocumented students. This might have changed since the time I applied and/or it can all depend on their funds available at the time, so please don’t be discouraged to consider these schools if they fit with your interests!).

3. Identify states that offer in-state tuition benefits and state financial aid to undocumented students

Learn about your state’s policies on undocumented students and if you qualify! As of February of 2015, 18 states allow eligible undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates and 5 also offer state financial aid to undocumented students (NCSL 2015).

I can’t say enough about how much of a difference in-state tuition and state financial aid have helped me in my own higher education journey. In California, Assembly Bill 540 (AB 540) passed in 2001 and so by the time I attended college in 2007, I was able to pay in-state tuition fees as opposed to out-of-state tuition fees. It was still difficult to pay for tuition of course without any form of financial aid. Difficult as it was, I was able to hang in there with the help of many who supported my fundraising efforts (read more about this on Part 2!), and offered me paid opportunities. During my last semester at SDSU as a graduate student, I was able to benefit from the California DREAM Act (AB 130 & AB 131). Long story short, definitely learn about your state’s policies toward undocumented students. If you qualify, I would definitely encourage you to apply to Universities that are in your state so that you don’t have to worry about out-of-state fees (which can sometimes be 3x as much as in-state tuition fees!) and you may even be able to receive state financial aid. However, I realize that not all undocumented students are eligible for in-state tuition and state financial aid bills, and there are more states that have yet to take action on the matter, so definitely keep reading this post to learn about additional recommendations for affording your graduate school education.

4. Actively search for and apply for scholarships and fellowships

You are probably already searching for scholarships and your search might have been what brought you to this post. So why am I even including this tip?

Well, many of my friends (and it has happened to me before) have doubted their potential to receive a scholarship— I don’t have a high G.P.A., I don’t have enough community service. I am not going to lie and say that these things don’t always matter, but I will say that regardless of these things, don’t be discouraged to apply. Make sure that you search for scholarships, read carefully through their requirements/guidelines, prepare a strong application, and apply! On this same note, don’t be discouraged by rejections! I, myself, have gotten my share of rejections, but that hasn’t stopped me from applying to other scholarships or even trying for the same scholarship the following year. To get up-to-date scholarships that are available for undocumented students, make sure to check the Graduate School Resource Guide and the Grad School Funding category on this platform!

Make sure to check out Part 2 where I share four more tips, including how to fundraise online/offline.

Carolina grew up undocumented in the U.S. since the age of twelve. In 2011, she created My Undocumented Life as a platform for undocumented communities to obtain up-to-date information and resources on pursuing higher education, immigration policies, and much more. Currently, she is a doctoral student at Harvard University whose scholarly work centers on immigration, race and ethnicity, law and society, families, and social movements.


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Categories: Grad School Funding

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1 reply

  1. Amazing post! I would also add applying to programs aimed at helping students to get into graduate school. For example, for the humanities there is the “Institute of Recruitment of Teachers.” This program is not just for teachers but anyone who wants to pursue any humanities programs. They will pay for your application fees and will help you through out the application, including paying for GRE classes. They are particularly helpful of Undocumented students as they have great connections with the admissions at different universities.

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