The Complete Guide to Federal Student Loans for Immigrants

Navigate the financial aid maze by asking for help

By Andrew Pentis
Published on LatinoLA: October 19, 2017

The Complete Guide to Federal Student Loans for Immigrants

Approximately 23 million of the 43 million foreign-born residents in the U.S. aren't citizens, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by the Center for American Progress.

So, how many would be eligible to receive federal student aid?

If you have a green card, a visa, or no papers at all, you might be wondering what the answer is.

Who is eligible for federal student aid?

The Department of Education (DOE) leaves little gray area for who can and can't receive financial aid, which includes federal student loans, grants, and work-study opportunities.

The bottom line is that if you're not a U.S. citizen, you must be a U.S. national or a permanent resident holding a green card. It doesn't matter if your parents aren't any of the above.

U.S. nationals are natives of American Samoa and Swains Island. Natives of other American territories -- Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands -- are full-fledged citizens.

There are four more groups of noncitizens who might be eligible for federal aid. You might be among them if:

• You're a refugee with an Arrival-Departure record, also known as an I-94 form

• You or your parent were victims of human trafficking and have a visa

• You're a Battered Immigrants-Qualified Alien

• You're a citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, or the Republic of Palau

To be eligible for financial aid, you might also have to provide proof from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that you intend to become a permanent resident in the U.S.

Who is not eligible for federal student aid?

That leaves everyone else out. If you're not a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen, you can't receive student loans from the government, let alone grants and work-study opportunities.

This even applies to approximately 790,000 beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA, which President Obama's administration initiated in 2012, gives many undocumented immigrants the ability to legally attend school, find work, and live in the U.S.

Although DACA students have Social Security numbers, they're not eligible to receive federal aid for a college education. This helps explain why just 10,000 of the estimated 65,000 DACA students who graduate high school each year end up graduating college, according to the nonprofit Educators for Fair Consideration.

Other students who aren't eligible for federal aid include:

Those approved to apply for permanent residency (but have not yet been granted it)
Those with an F-1, F-2, J-1, J-2, or G series visa (which includes international students)

On the bright side, ineligible students do have other ways to finance their way toward an American campus.

Ineligible noncitizens have other aid options

Even if you're likely ineligible for federal financial aid, it's wise to first ask your high school's college counselor or the financial aid office of your prospective college. They can also advise you on filling out the FAFSA.

The FAFSA will ask for your residency status and your Social Security number. If you identify as an eligible noncitizen, your information might be checked against a database run by the DHS.

It's important to fill out the FAFSA because it helps you determine your Expected Family Contribution. This is the amount of money you could afford to pay out of pocket based on your income information.

With their Social Security numbers, DACA students will be able to complete the FAFSA. If you're in this group, you can receive a Student Aid Report even if you're ineligible for the aid itself. The report could help you apply for state- and college-based aid as well as private scholarships.

Other undocumented students might be told to skip the FAFSA as a way of staying under the radar.

Checking with your high school's or college's rep can help you navigate your options if federal financial aid is not an option. This is because you still might be available for aid from your state and your college.

1. State- and college-based grants

At least 18 states allow undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition rates, and at least six offer state-based financial aid to them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Although your college or university will have the details on its benefits, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) is the go-to resource for learning more about your state's offerings.

The NASFAA's clickable map of the U.S. leads you to state-run websites with links and information pointing toward grants, fellowships, and scholarships. Each opportunity should list the application requirements, which might include living within the state for a specific number of years and graduating from one of its high schools.

If you're an undocumented student in Oregon, for example, the map would direct you to the state's Office of Student Access and Completion. For DACA students, it lists four grant opportunities in addition to instruction on securing in-state tuition and other college-specific aid.

The College Board also offers a repository of resources for undocumented students. Although it was created in 2012, it's still recommended reading if you live in one of the dozen different states covered.

2. Privately-funded scholarships

Scholarship search engines and tools can also be great resources for students in need. Even the Department of Labor's engine returned 125-plus scholarship results for a recent keyword search of "immigrant."

Here are four more online scholarship resources specifically for immigrant students:
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

The DOE also recommends contacting your country's embassy, consulate, or local government to see what it offers. You might find, for example, that your home country offers international student loan options that compete with American private lenders.

As is always the case, rack up as much gift aid as possible before resorting the loans that need to be paid back.

Navigate the financial aid maze by asking for help

Every student -- no matter where they come from -- must find their way through a financial aid maze.

One pathway in that maze becomes blocked when you're deemed ineligible for federal financial aid. So, it's important to remember that there are other routes to campus. Just don't forget to ask for directions.

Article originally appeared on

About Andrew Pentis:
Andrew covers personal finance for Student Loan Hero. His work has appeared in 30-plus publications. He is interested in creating actionable content.
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