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Dreams of college for immigrant students

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As a child, “Amanda” moved to the United States from Trinidad. She graduated as valedictorian from her Philadelphia high school, but she is not attending college.

An undocumented immigrant, she is not comfortable having her real name in a newspaper. Amanda must pay international student tuition rates, three times higher than her documented classmates, despite the fact that she has lived in Pennsylvania for five years. She is ineligible for government financial aid. And most private scholarships require legal residency or citizenship.

Pennsylvania colleges will generally consider a student an in-state resident after 12 months. But in 1996, a federal immigration reform bill changed the playing field for undocumented immigrant students, making it difficult for them to qualify for in-state tuition rates. Nine states have passed laws to work around the confusion, but not Pennsylvania.

Higher tuition and fewer financial resources aren’t the only barriers undocumented students face. Colleges now depend so heavily on Social Security numbers that it can be difficult to apply or enroll without one. And students who clear these hurdles and graduate with a degree still need legal status and work authorization to use it.

The DREAM Act is a federal bill that would change things for students who entered the country at least five years ago and were under age 16 when they arrived. By completing two years of college or military service, they would earn a green card. The bill had significant support in the last session of Congress, with the co-sponsorship of 48 senators, including Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, and 153 representatives, including Philadelphia Representative Chaka Fattah. But it was not brought to the floor for a vote.

Locally, the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC) is organizing support for the DREAM Act.

Last April, the School District of Philadelphia issued a statement in support of the DREAM Act, noting that 10,000 immigrant students in the District are facing unique barriers to continuing their education; 845 of these students graduated last year.

For more information, contact PICC at 215-832-0626 or email

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