Immigrant rights in college and higher education

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

There is no law that says you have to show proof of citizenship to go to college. But different schools often have different acceptance rules that may affect immigrants. You can research a school’s rules before applying to find out what they require. 

Getting in-state tuition or financial aid may depend on your immigration status. There is a new Tuition Equity Law in Massachusetts. This law lets many students get in-state tuition and state financial aid when they couldn’t before.

I am an immigrant living in Massachusetts. Can I pay in-state tuition rates?

You may be eligible for the in-state tuition rate at a public college, community college, or public university. It depends on your immigration status. 

There are 2 ways you may be able to get in-state tuition:

  • through the traditional pathway, or 
  • as a “High School Completer.”  

Learn more about getting in-state tuition at the Massachusetts Tuition Equity website.

What is the Traditional Pathway to in-state tuition?

If you:

  • have become a citizen of the United States,
  • are a legal permanent resident, or 
  • are a lawful immigrant (such as a DACA or TPS recipient),

you might be able to get in-state tuition rates at a public college, community college, or university in Massachusetts through the Traditional Pathway.

What is the “High School Completer” pathway to in-state tuition?

You may be able to get in-state tuition rates no matter what your immigration status is. You might be able to do this as a “High School Completer” under the new Tuition Equity Law. This is another pathway to the in-state tuition rate. 

To qualify as a “High School Completer,” you must have:

  • gone to a Massachusetts high school for at least 3 years,
  • graduated from a Massachusetts high school, or
  • gotten your GED or high school equivalency in Massachusetts and been admitted to a Massachusetts public college or university.

Apply by using the Tuition Equity Eligibility Form and Affidavit for High School Completers. Learn more about the “High School Completer” pathway at the Massachusetts Tuition Equity website.

What if I am here on a temporary visa?

Noncitizens who are in the United States on a valid tourist visa, foreign student visa, or certain other temporary visas cannot get in-state tuition under either pathway. You must pay the higher out-of-state rate to go to Massachusetts public colleges or universities.

What about financial aid?

Depending on your immigration status, you might be able to get federal or state financial aid. To see if you can get financial aid, fill out a financial aid application. Only do 1 application per year.

If you are eligible for federal financial aid as an immigrant, do the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Otherwise, do the Massachusetts Application for State Financial Aid (MASFA).

Federal financial aid for immigrants

To get federal financial aid, you must have one of these immigration statuses:

  • permanent resident
  • refugee, asylee, and pre-1980 conditional entrant
  • Cuban-Haitian Entrant
  • someone granted certain kinds of immigration “parole” for over 1 year
  • battered immigrant (defined by the federal Violence Against Women Act, VAWA)
  • human trafficking victim (defined by the federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act)

More information about federal financial aid and who can get it can be found in U.S. Department of Education resource materials. This includes the Federal Student Financial Aid Handbook, Chapter 2 (“Citizenship”).

To apply, use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Massachusetts financial aid for immigrants

If you can’t get federal financial aid because of your immigration status, you may be able to get Massachusetts-funded financial aid. There are 2 kinds:

  1. Aid based on financial need
  2. Aid based on merit

There are aid programs for grants and scholarships. Each aid program also has specific requirements. If you qualify for in-state tuition as a “High School Completer,” you may be able to get both types of aid if you meet the requirements. 

To be considered for need-based aid, submit the Massachusetts Application for State Financial Aid (MASFA) form. Learn more at the Massachusetts Tuition Equity website.

Financial aid for Boston residents

If you are a Boston resident, you may be able to get free tuition at community colleges through the Tuition Free Community College Plan. Your immigration status doesn’t matter.

I scored in the top 25% of my school district on the MCAS. Am I eligible for the Adams Scholarship?

The Adams Scholarship is merit-based aid. It is given to graduating Massachusetts high school students who scored in the top 25% of their school district on MCAS. You get free tuition for up to 8 semesters at any Massachusetts public university, state college, or community college. The benefit must be used within 6 years of your high school graduation.

To be eligible, you must have:

  • graduated from a Massachusetts public high school,
  • scored in the highest 25% in your district in the MCAS,
  • be a U.S. citizen, permanent legal resident, lawfully present, or classified as a “High School Completer” under the new Tuition Equity Law,
  • been enrolled in a Massachusetts public college, and
  • filled out the FAFSA or MASFA application.

You don’t need to apply for the Adams Scholarship. You will be notified if you get it. For more information, see the Office of Student Financial Assistance.

Do private schools offer assistance or full scholarships to undocumented students?

Some private schools offer help to undocumented students. You may need to apply as an international student and/or apply for financial aid when you apply to the school. If you need help applying or have questions, ask your school’s guidance counselor or an admissions officer at the college you want to apply to.

You can find a list of scholarships available to undocumented students from the U.S. Department of Education's resource guide on pages 38-42.

Resource Boxes
More Resources
Helpful links
Links for higher ed immigrant youth

Stories Inspiring Movement (SIM) a statewide immigrant youth organization

Massachusetts Tuition Equity website


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