3 Obstacles That Can Affect Financial Aid for Immigrants

 July 13, 2020
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Melisa Boutin did everything right. Looking for a better life, she emigrated from St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean to the U.S. She became a legal citizen and planned to obtain a bachelor’s degree, but financing her education was challenging.

“Because I graduated [from high school] outside of the United States, it was difficult completing financial aid and application forms,” she said.

Whether you are an immigrant who is an official U.S. citizen or a FAFSA-eligible noncitizen, it can be challenging to secure financial aid for college. Here are some facts to be aware of, including specific challenges you may face, and how you can tackle them.

Federal financial aid for FAFSA-eligible noncitizens

If you are an eligible noncitizen in the U.S., you may be able to qualify for federal assistance to pay for school by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

However, it’s important to understand that not all legal non-citizens qualify for financial aid for school. They must meet specific guidelines to be FAFSA-eligible noncitizens.

You are eligible to receive federal financial aid as an eligible non-U.S. citizen if you meet one of the following criteria:

  • You are a permanent resident with a Form I-551, I-151, or I-551C (Permanent Resident Card, Resident Alien Card, or Alien Registration Receipt Card), also known as a green card.
  • You are a U.S. national (this includes natives of American Samoa or Swains Island)
  • You are a conditional permanent resident.
  • You are another kind of eligible noncitizen, such as one with documentation from the Department of Homeland Security that designates you as a refugee, asylum recipient or Cuban-Haitian entrant, or are eligible for indefinite or humanitarian parole.
  • You are a citizen of the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands or the Federated States of Micronesia. There are limits to this: Citizens of the Republic of Palau are eligible for Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants and work-study. Citizens of the Federal States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands are eligible only for Pell Grants.
  • You or your parent hold a T nonimmigrant status, or T-visa, for victims of human trafficking.
  • You are a “battered immigrant-qualified alien” whose citizen or permanent resident spouse has abused you, or you are a child of a person designated as such under the Violence Against Women Act.

If you meet any of those criteria, not only may you take out federal student loans, but you may also receive federal grants and work-study opportunities to help reduce your college costs. Federal Student Aid notes that, when filling out the FAFSA as an eligible noncitizen, you must enter your eight- or nine-digit Alien Registration Number on the FAFSA. If your status changes to U.S. citizen, be sure to contact the Social Security Administration to update your status.

While you may be eligible for federal student aid as an immigrant with citizenship or not, actually applying for and receiving that financial aid may be more complicated than you’d think.

3 financial aid issues you might face

It sounds pretty straightforward: You complete the FAFSA and get federal loans or grants to pay for school. But in reality, it’s not always so simple. There are a number of issues that could prevent you from even filling out the FAFSA to start with.

Here are three of the most common financial aid problems you might face as an immigrant, and what you can do to solve them.

1. Tax returns and dependency status
2. Fears about listing undocumented parents
3. Issues with in-state tuition

1. Tax returns and dependency status

When you complete the FAFSA, the form prompts you to answer questions about your household size, whether you file as independent or dependent on your taxes and your family’s adjusted gross income (AGI), which is verified using your tax forms from the previous year.

For Boutin, that was a problem. “Where I come from, there are no income tax returns,” she said. “So I had no way to enter that information.”

And because her parents were overseas, Boutin didn’t have easy access to their information. She had to find a workaround. She resolved the issue by asking her aunt, with whom she lived, to add her to the household as a dependent. With that change, Boutin could file her tax return as a dependent.

What you can do

If your parents are overseas or if you don’t have a tax return, you can still submit the FAFSA after indicating that you have special circumstances. However, you might need to submit additional documentation; contact the financial aid department at your school to see exactly what’s required of you.

It might also be a good idea to look for additional sources of school funding, advised Grace Toapanta, a college organizer with the Florida Immigration Coalition. “I would guide students to scholarships from private organizations,” she said. “Federal aid needs more documentation and can be more complicated. Private institutions are more flexible and more willing to help.”

For Latino students, Toapanta recommends the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). The website specifically notes that “The MALDEF Scholarship Resource Guide is a free, informative resource guide for students, parents and educators with an extensive list of scholarships, including many that do not inquire about immigration status.”

Students from all countries can use scholarship search engines to find money for school. Some scholarships are specifically designed for immigrants.

2. Fears about listing undocumented parents

Toapanta said some students who are in the country legally forgo federal financial aid for immigrants to protect their undocumented parents.

“They are asked to list their parents’ income [if they are a dependent student], and that opens up dangers to them,” she said. Because of these concerns, some students who are immigrants choose not to submit the FAFSA.

What you can do

When submitting your FAFSA, it’s important to weigh the risk with the benefit of your education. Federal Student Aid notes specifically that it does not ask about your parents’ status on the FAFSA form. However, there may be red flags raised by certain questions that are asked. For example, dependent students with undocumented parents may wonder how they should fill out their parents’ Social Security numbers, or their income information.

Immigration enforcement agencies have not requested FAFSA parent or student information in the past. However, the Department of Education can legally give immigration and law officials FAFSA information, according to the ACLU.

While the situation can be difficult, Toapanta said there is a solution. “If [students] are over 18, I recommend that they declare themselves as independent,” she said. “That way, they don’t have to put their parents at risk.”

As an independent student, you only have to list your own income and household information — not your parents’. However, you should understand that it may not be easy to declare yourself as independent if you are under age 24. You might qualify as independent if you meet one of the following criteria:

  • You are 24 or older by January 1 of the school year for which you are applying for financial aid.
  • You are working toward a master’s or professional degree.
  • You are married or separated, but not divorced.
  • You have children who receive more than half of their support from you.
  • Your parents are deceased or you were in foster care during any time since you turned 13.
  • You are serving on active duty in the U.S. military.
  • You are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless.
  • You are an emancipated minor.
  • You are a military veteran.

3. Issues with in-state tuition

For many students, going to a public state university is a much more affordable option than going to a private school. However, some immigrants have trouble qualifying for in-state tuition, even when they live in the required area.

“I had one student who was struggling to get into Polk State College [in Florida] and he was denied in-state tuition,” Toapanta said. “To qualify, the state said he had to have completed three years of high school in Florida; he had only completed one.”

What you can do

First, make sure you know your state’s requirements for attending a state school as a resident. Some states require you to live in the state for a year or more to qualify as a resident student, while others may require just six months. You can find out by contacting your state’s department of education or your intended school.

If you fall short of their requirement, you might still be able to find a workaround. “I recommend students [in this situation] write letters to the dean,” Toapanta said. “Explain your hardship and your situation, and some schools will be willing to help.”

In the case of the student mentioned above, Toapanta said this approach was effective. “He collected letters of support from the community and wrote a letter,” she said. “The dean decided to waive the requirement for that student.”

Appealing directly to the school doesn’t always work, but it can be a smart approach to try and qualify for in-state tuition.

Where else to get help

If you’re struggling to navigate through the federal financial aid system, there are other resources that can help, including:

  • National College Access Network (NCAN) member organizations: NCAN’s mission is to help underrepresented students achieve success in college. You can visit its website here.
  • Your intended school: If you have a school in mind, consider reaching out to its admissions office. Many schools have advisors who specialize in working with recent immigrants and first-generation students. Some even offer special scholarships and other financial aid programs.
  • Your regional MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) office: Besides offering scholarships, MALDEF has regional offices that offer programs and resources for immigrants and their families. They also offer an extensive guide to educational scholarships. Their focus is on the Latino community, although their resources are helpful for immigrants from other nations. You can find its website here.
  • If you are not a U.S. citizen or a FAFSA-eligible noncitizen, you will not be able to get federal financial aid. However, Federal Student Aid notes that there are some scholarships and other aid you may be able to get. They advise that you check with your country’s embassy or U.S. consulate to see what they might offer. You can also try the U.S. Department of Labor’s free online scholarship search, or the Education USA They also advise that you talk to the school you plan to attend to see if there are any aid options for students like you.

Applying for financial aid

Finding and applying for financial aid as an immigrant, whether you are a U.S. citizen or a FAFSA-eligible noncitizen, can be challenging. Depending on your circumstances, tackling the FAFSA can seem overwhelming. But by researching what you’re eligible for and identifying solutions to common issues, you may get the financial help you need to pursue a degree. You also might consider outside grants and scholarships, or private student loans, to help fund your education.

If you still need to submit your FAFSA but don’t know where to begin, read our guide on filling out and filing the FAFSA.

Rebecca Stropoli contributed to this report

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