3 Obstacles That Can Affect Financial Aid for Immigrants

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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.

Melisa isn’t alone. The National Center for Education Statistics says that immigrant students make up about 8 percent of all U.S. undergraduate students. Many of them are here legally and go to school to help improve their career and financial prospects.

However, being a new immigrant can be challenging when it comes to paying for school. There is financial aid for immigrants, but navigating the process can be overwhelming and complex.

Federal financial aid for immigrants

Although undocumented immigrants are typically ineligible for federal aid, you can qualify for federal assistance to pay for school if you are in the U.S. legally by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

However, Carrie Warick, the director of policy and advocacy with the National College Access Network, said the process can be complex.

“It’s difficult to group all legal immigrants into one group because some qualify for financial aid and others do not,” she said. “Even some legal immigrants are not eligible unless they meet the guidelines taken directly from the FAFSA.”

According to the Department of Education, you are eligible to receive federal financial aid if you meet one of the following criteria:

  • You are a permanent resident with a permanent resident card.
  • 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 Cuba-Haitian entrant, or 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.

If you meet any of those criteria, not only can you take out federal student loans, but you can also receive federal grants and work-study opportunities to reduce your college costs. But while you are eligible for federal aid, actually applying for and receiving that financial aid can 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 it.

1. Tax returns and dependency status issues

When you complete the FAFSA, the form prompts you to answer questions about your household size, whether you file 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 big 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.

Boutin resolved the issue by asking her aunt, whom she lived with, 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. Although she hasn’t worked with students with the same problem as Boutin, she said that students in that situation might have to pursue other avenues to pay for school.

“I would guide students to scholarships from private organizations,” said Toapanta. “Federal aid needs more documentation and can be more complicated. Private institutions are more flexible and more willing to help.”

To find scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid for immigrants, you’ll have to do some research. For Latino students, Toapanta recommends visiting the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) website.

Students from all countries can use scholarship search engines to find free 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 don’t complete the FAFSA because of worries about their family. They forgo federal financial aid for immigrants to protect their undocumented parents.

“There are students who are eligible for financial aid but whose parents are undocumented,” said Toapanta. “They are asked to list their parents’ income, and that opens up dangers to them.”

Worried about their parents’ status and the potential for deportation, some students 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. 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 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, you only have to list your own income and household information — not your parents’. You might qualify as independent if you meet one of the following criteria:

  • You are 24 or older by Dec. 31 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.
  • You are serving on active duty in the U.S. military.
  • 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. As of 2017, the average cost of tuition per year at a public school was $9,410 for in-state students, reported The College Board. By contrast, a year at a public university for an out-of-state student costs $23,980.

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 residency requirements. Some require you to live in the state for as long as three years to qualify, while others are 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 has hundreds of partners nationwide. Use the NCAN member directory to find a local organization that can help you complete the FAFSA and find financial aid opportunities.
  • 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 office: Besides offering scholarships, MALDEF has regional offices that offer programs and resources for immigrants and their families. Although they focus on the Latino community, many of their resources are helpful for immigrants from other nations.

Applying for financial aid

Finding and applying for financial aid for immigrants can be challenging. Depending on your circumstances, completing the FAFSA can seem downright impossible. But by researching what you’re eligible for and identifying solutions to common issues, you can get the financial help you need to pursue a degree.

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

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