As a teenager, Fernanda wanted her time in college to be like what she saw in movies. She wanted to attend a big university – one with name recognition – and live in a dormitory. She achieved that dream in 2015, but because she is undocumented, the experience came with a hefty price tag. 

At least 18 states have passed legislation allowing some undocumented immigrants to access state financial aid, which many citizens rely on to pay for college. Pennsylvania, however, is not one of them. The state legislature also has not advanced bills that would provide eligible undocumented residents with in-state tuition at public institutions, which can reduce the cost of attendance by thousands. 

No matter where they live in the U.S., undocumented students can’t access federal financial aid. These barriers are significant and can make higher education inaccessible to others like Fernanda, advocates say.

Fernanda, 26, who asked to withhold her last name due to her immigration status, graduated from the Pennsylvania State University in 2018. But she finished with $84,602 in debt from private loans, which often have higher interest rates and fewer borrower protections than federal options. The South Hills resident said she pays off about $700 a month but has hardly made a dent in her debt, which totaled $78,181 in December.

Still, she deeply values her college education. 

“Everyone has unlimited amounts of potential, but it’s resources that actually keep us from achieving that potential,” she said. “If you’re undocumented, and you’re 19, just graduated high school, what are your real options? Do you go into school, get in debt? That is, of course, if the school that you’re applying to even accepts you.”

Fernanda is silhouetted against the trees by her house on Dec. 14 in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

In recent years, some Democratic state lawmakers have sponsored legislation that would definitively allow eligible undocumented immigrants to access in-state tuition or aid through the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. The bills have languished, without votes, in the House of Representatives or Senate. 

Lea esta historia en español: Indocumentados pero impertérritos, jóvenes inmigrantes aspiran a obtener títulos pero reciben poco alivio en los costos

The changes would impact a tiny share of Pennsylvanians – an estimated 3% of the population were not citizens as of 2022 – but some lawmakers and advocates believe the state also stands to benefit from them.

They assert that expanding access to undocumented immigrants would support the economy, particularly as the state is projected to lose about 5% of its traditional working-age population between 2020 and 2030. They argue that it will also boost college enrollment, given that the state’s college-going population is projected to shrink

Beyond the potential economic benefits, “The whole idea that we should not let kids go to college or make it harder for students to go to college is patently absurd,” said Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh County, chair of the House Education Committee. 

Tuition equity is important to Casa San José, a local nonprofit that serves and advocates for the Latino community. Between 2021 and early November of this year, the Beechview-based organization had nine meetings with state legislators to advocate for undocumented residents to receive in-state tuition and state financial aid. As of 2022, about 34% of the state’s foreign-born population was from Latin America. 

“We’ve really played the argument of, you know, enrollment is going down,” said William Reeves, the former community policy organizer with the nonprofit. “Being able to have a more inclusive process for all residents within the state, regardless of immigration status, could ensure that even more adults could return back to school.”

“I think we’ve created good connections solely through this issue, to raise awareness around this issue. And a lot of legislators did not even know this was an issue, to be honest,” he said.

Beechview, a neighborhood in the city’s southern reaches, saw its Hispanic or Latino population increase by around 75% from 2010 to 2020, according to census data compiled in 2021 by The University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research. That was one of the largest increases among Pittsburgh neighborhoods. 

A view of Pittsburgh from the top of a hill.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning rises beyond the homes of the South Side Slopes. Pennsylvania lacks a statewide policy on eligibility for undocumented students to receive in-state tuition. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The landscape in Pennsylvania

At least 24 states allow eligible undocumented students to receive in-state tuition, according to Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. Pennsylvania lacks a statewide policy on the matter, but at least one public institution says it offers the discount in some cases. 

In 2021, undocumented immigrants made up about 1% of all Pennsylvania college students.

At Pennsylvania’s state-related universities, policies determining in-state tuition qualifications are generally prohibitive. Pitt states that refugees, asylees, green card holders and those with an approved I-140 or I-130 may be eligible. Temple University considers non-citizens generally ineligible. Lincoln University assumes non-citizens without immigrant visas are ineligible but allows them to refute that classification “with clear and convincing evidence.”

Penn State’s website states the university will consider undocumented immigrants eligible if they meet certain residency requirements, which include attending a Pennsylvania high school for four years. But spokesperson Lisa Powers indicated in a statement such cases are a rarity.

“Non-citizens are classified as international students,” Powers wrote. “The University’s policy is to offer in-state tuition solely to Pennsylvania residents who meet the extensive Pennsylvania residency requirements. While there are a limited number of instances where students without visas might be eligible for Pennsylvania resident tuition, these cases are exceptions rather than the rule.”

The university charged out-of-state students $38,651 in the 2022-23 academic year, without financial aid, while in-state students were charged $19,835.

A blue jay is pictured in a gold frame.
Fernanda’s fifth grade drawing of a blue jay, photographed at her home on Dec. 14, in Pittsburgh. The bird has become an aspirational image for her own life as she strives for the freedom from the constraints of her immigration status that the bird symbolizes to her. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Fernanda applied to Penn State after first being granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA], a federal program offering protections to qualifying undocumented residents. The university intended to charge her out-of-state tuition, but she was able to receive the in-state discount after she and her father provided an admissions official with documents proving her residency.

The sticker price for in-state students at Penn State’s main campus was $18,828 during the 2017-18 academic year, Fernanda’s senior year. She received a few small scholarships from the university and graduated a semester early, she said, but needed to borrow for the vast majority of the cost. 

“I was just so young and naive, and my parents didn’t know anything, either, that we were just like, ‘OK, well, we’ll just get a loan,’” Fernanda said. “So, I signed with Sallie Mae and got huge interest, a huge loan for that first year of college, and had to do that every year.”

Despite the cost, Fernanda said her years in college were some of her best. She majored in international relations and Spanish, with a minor in Latin American history. Learning about those subjects was a “gift,” she said, as her high school hadn’t exposed her to them. She also enjoyed her classes in anthropology, philosophy and psychology. 

She got involved in student organizations, too, serving as president of the university’s UNICEF chapter and secretary of a club focused on women in politics. Her roles showed her “what it means to be an active citizen and participant and what it means to be an advocate for those who are marginalized,” she said. 

Progress stalls in Harrisburg

In April, a bill that would definitively allow eligible undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition at public institutions was referred to the House Education Committee, which Schweyer, a Democrat, now chairs. The bill — like a similar proposal introduced during the prior legislative session — has not received a vote. 

And in February, state Sen. Judith Schwank, D-Berks County, and other elected officials introduced a similar bill. The legislation was co-sponsored by Democratic senators Jay Costa, Wayne Fontana and Lindsey Williams, who represent Allegheny County. The bill was referred to the Republican-led Senate Education Committee, where it has sat without a vote. 

Republican control of the legislature and a lack of bipartisan support – influenced by the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has pervaded national politics in recent years – have prevented progress, Schweyer and Schwank told PublicSource. Republicans, who tend to support more aggressive responses to illegal immigration, controlled the House from 2010 to 2022 and currently control the Senate. 

“This incredibly dehumanizing rhetoric and policy that’s all over the United States – Pennsylvania’s not immune to that. But it’s really only coming from one side of the aisle, and it ain’t coming from my side,” Schweyer said. 

But Rep. Jesse Topper, the Republican chair of the House Education Committee, said he would be “perfectly fine” with a university choosing to offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants – he doesn’t believe the state should mandate it. “I believe that they’re in the best position to make that decision,” he said.

“We are required, as a state and as a constitution, to ensure that each child has access to high-quality K-12 education. That requirement does not exist for higher education,” Topper said. “We definitely need to support our institutions to make sure we’re supporting our workforce, we’re supporting families where that is a choice on their part. But it is a choice.”

Topper added that he is not anti-immigrant and does not espouse such rhetoric. He believes that immigration reform is needed to make achieving citizenship easier, but he said that issue is separate from tuition equity. “The other side of the aisle thinks that government intervention is the solution for everything, except, apparently, enforcing [immigration laws].”

With progress stalled for now, Schweyer said that he and advocates have instead prioritized issues that they believe are most likely to pass in the Senate – and that reflect the immigrant community’s greatest needs. 

A drawing of two women holding signs reading "Black Lives Matter" and "No Human Being is Illegal."
A sign in the window of Casa San José reads “Tu lucha es mi lucha,” translated to “Your fight is my fight,” as seen on Dec. 6, in Beechview. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Casa San José in Pittsburgh, for example, met with legislators 74 times between 2021 and early November to push the state to allow undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses. While tuition equity would profoundly impact the community, Casa San José has not prioritized the issue recently because of the organization’s limited resources for advocacy, Reeves said.

Julio Rodriguez, political director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, said that the battle in the legislature over funding the state-related universities has further complicated matters. It’s difficult to advocate for expanded access to in-state tuition when the universities are unsure they’ll receive enough funding to offer the discount at all, he said. 

And the allocations have been politicized in the past, with House Republicans initially attempting to block Pitt from receiving its funding in 2022 unless the university halted its fetal tissue research. Support for undocumented immigrants may be another lightning rod. “The universities are very cautious about risking their funding overall,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez is encouraged by Schweyer’s leadership of the House Education Committee and believes that legislation on this issue will pass if the Senate flips Democratic in 2024 or 2026. Schweyer is also optimistic about the future, but he said that he and other supporters must reach across the aisle.

“I haven’t run many bills at all – I don’t know that I’ve run any – that have been straight-up 100% passed just by Democrats,” Schweyer said. “It’s going to be a lot of education. It’s going to be a lot of work.”

Reeves said the organization has garnered bipartisan support for tuition equity, noting that legislators on both sides can be skeptical about supporting undocumented immigrants. He said that providing testimonials to legislators has been helpful, but he added that more data on the impact of these policies is needed to convince lawmakers.

“We want to ensure that, instead of it being conveyed as a partisan issue, that this is a necessity that could benefit all residents of Pennsylvania,” Reeves said.

A person holding up a framed picture in which her face is reflected.
Fernanda reflected in her fifth grade drawing of a blue jay, photographed at her home. “Years later it’s just become my favorite animal and it’s become a symbol of beauty and freedom and liberty to travel and live a life I wanna live,” says Fernanda of the importance of the bird to her immigrant story. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Life after college

Ultimately, Fernanda graduated from Penn State and now has a full-time job as a recruitment manager. Though her debt forces her to be hyper-aware of her spending and budgeting, she’s been able to pay for her car and housing and “have a full life,” she said. 

But she’s frustrated that Pennsylvania hasn’t made tangible progress on tuition equity, thus failing to build a bridge for others in her situation who might want to broaden their opportunities and perspectives. 

“My perspective on everything shifted in college,” she said. 

“My mind was really formed and shaped, not only intellectually and academically, but also in the people that I met – people who were international students, people who grew up in different parts of the country, and people whose stories were similar to mine, or different to mine.” 

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story has been fact-checked by Ladimir Garcia.

Translation by Zulma Michaca, a bilingual professional living in Riverside County, Calif., with family ties in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at z.michaca123@gmail.com.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.