The Complete Guide to Federal Student Loans for Immigrants

student loans for immigrants

An estimated 22.6 million of the 43 million foreign-born residents in the United States aren’t citizens, according to 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:

  1. You’re a refugee with an Arrival-Departure record, also known as an I-94 form
  2. You or a parent were victims of human trafficking and have a visa
  3. You’re a battered immigrant-qualified alien
  4. 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 have to provide proof from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) 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, G-series visa (which includes international students)

On the bright side, ineligible students do have other ways to finance their way through college.

Ineligible noncitizens have other aid options

Even if you’re likely ineligible for federal financial aid, you should still talk to your high school’s college counselor or the financial aid office of your prospective college to learn about your options. 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 Department of Homeland Security.

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 a Social Security number, DACA students can 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 altogether.

Checking with your high school’s or college’s rep can help you navigate your options if you’re barred from receiving federal financial aid. This is because you still might be eligible 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, that site lists four grant opportunities in addition to instructions 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. The CareerOneStop scholarship finder tool, for example, returned 128 scholarship results for a keyword search of “immigrant.”

Here are additional online scholarship resources specifically for immigrant students:

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 to loans.

Navigate the financial aid maze by asking for help

Every student — no matter where they come from — must find their way through the 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 consider. Just don’t forget to ask for directions.

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