Since New York passed the Jose Peralta DREAM Act in 2019, making immigrant students eligible for state-administered financial aid they were previously cut off from, more colleges and organizations have opened their doors so undocumented students can access scholarships.

Gerardo Romo/NYC Council Media Unit

NYC high school graduates at a 2019 ceremony in Brooklyn.

This article originally appeared in Spanish. Translated by Daniel Parra.
Lea la versión en español aquí.

In 2022, about 100,000 undocumented students graduated from U.S. high schools, and according to the organization, over the next three years, the same number of students will graduate.

It is difficult to know exactly, but an estimated 4,500 undocumented students graduated from high schools across New York State alone in 2019. These estimates served to offer a sense of the impact of the New York’s State Jose Peralta DREAM Act passed that same year, under which eligible immigrant students can qualify for in-state tuition at SUNY and CUNY institutions, as well as access to state-administered financial aid and scholarships, which can also be applied to costs at some participating private colleges within the state.

The bill is named after late Sen. José Peralta, the first Dominican-American to be elected to the New York Senate and who championed the legislation for years. Advocates had pushed for the legislation since 2013, but it had failed to pass in the formerly Republican-controlled state Senate. 

Before its passage, undocumented students had no access to state or local aid and there were only a few private scholarships available. In recent years both colleges and organizations have opened their doors so that more students can have access to scholarships.

City Limits has prepared this guide to give an overview of how undocumented students in New York can afford to study at a state college or university.

What are the requirements to apply to a private, public, or community college in New York?

Students must have passed the General Educational Development Test or GED, which is a high school equivalency diploma, or have earned a high school degree in the United States.

Immigrant advocates and university staff in New York stress that newly arrived immigrants who want to go to college should weigh whether to prepare for the GED test or, even if they have already graduated in their home countries, study the last two years of high school in order to qualify for certain scholarships, including aid under the New York DREAM Act (more below).

Students should identify the program of study and the degree to which they aspire. In the United States, there are different types of degrees (e.g., Bachelor’s Degrees granted by four-year colleges or Associate’s Degrees granted by community colleges), therefore, students should be familiar with the type of degree they want to pursue.

Scoring high grades in high school will always be helpful both in applying to colleges and in applying for scholarships.

How to qualify for aid under the New York State DREAM Act

Undocumented students or those who have DACA, U visa, T visa, or Temporary Protected Status (TPS) are eligible to apply. 

There are two major requirements to be considered: a student must have attended a high school in New York State for at least two years and must have graduated. In addition, a student must apply to a college’s undergraduate program within five years of their high school graduation date.

The program is also open to those who are applying to a graduate program in New York, who have up to 10 years to apply after graduation from high school.

The application is online here, and there are step-by-step guides on how to apply in several languages including Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean and Bengali. The form asks whether the applicant is a citizen or an immigrant. The immigration status provided on the New York State DREAM Act application is confidential, will not be shared with the federal government, and will not otherwise be used for enforcement purposes by immigration authorities.

Remember that there are two steps to applying for NY DREAM Act benefits. The first step is to submit the completed application and be accepted by the Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC), the student financial aid agency.

The second step is to complete the application for New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), a  scholarship to pay for tuition at approved New York State schools. Once the application is approved (congratulations), the school you applied for will be notified.

Note that in order to maintain the scholarship there are conditions, such as a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 3.0.

What other scholarships are available for undocumented students to attend college?

Scholarships for students, regardless of their immigration status, are often available within colleges themselves and even within some specific departments. As such, staff at several universities advised students to look for and ask what additional scholarships they can apply for before, during, and after being accepted to college.

“You really have to get your act together,” said Angy Rivera, co-executive director of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, said about the college funding process.

Several organizations have compiled lists of scholarships open to undocumented students: The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) has one such list, Make The Road NY has another, as does United We Dream. The most frequently referenced list by advocates and university staff alike was the compilation made by Immigrants Rising. Find more options here.

Scholarships are also available through organizations such as the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC), the Brandon Hendricks Scholarship for Bronx residents or The Dream US Scholarship.

Other things to consider when choosing a degree

Undocumented students should carefully consider whether their chosen major will require specific licensing, as some careers dos.  

For additional advice on the application process, experts recommend first contacting the counselor at your high school, as well as the counselor at your desired college program or university.

Organizations such as the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) host meetings for students and college campus visits. The next meeting is scheduled for March 27 at Brooklyn College (details here). They also have a 1-year program for undocumented high school seniors in New York City.

In 2022, the City University of New York, or CUNY as it is commonly known, established a senior leadership role responsible for coordinating undocumented and immigrant students’ support services for the entire CUNY system. In addition, CUNY has offices committed to addressing the concerns of immigrant students, called Immigrant Student Success Centers, with two locations: one at John Jay College (led by Denise Vivar) and one at Brooklyn College (led by Jesus Perez).