The recently released Coronavirus Aid, Relief, Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act allocated more than $6 billion in aid to institutions to give to students via emergency grants that can be used for non-tuition expenses like food, housing and transportation. While colleges and universities will have a significant amount of discretion in how they distribute these emergency funds, it will be critical to ensure that aid goes to the students who are struggling the most. The needs of low-income students, adult returning students, student parents and undocumented students should be prioritized during this national crisis. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education has issued guidance that makes it clear that undocumented students are not eligible for emergency grant funds in the CARES Act.

As a recent report by The Education Trust showed, higher education in the United States remains wildly unaffordable for many low-income students. And the picture for undocumented students is even worse, since they don’t qualify for federal financial aid and are only rarely eligible for state aid. Given the absence of support by the Department of Education for undocumented students during a pandemic, prioritizing assistance for undocumented students, who have little recourse at a time when many are losing jobs and income, and for whom stimulus checks and unemployment insurance are out of reach, is even more urgent now.

An added challenge for undocumented students, and in conducting this analysis, which was done leading up to the outbreak, is that the state context for undocumented students varies greatly. There are 35 states that have no state legislation or that outright deny undocumented students in-state resident tuition or access to enroll in public colleges and universities, eight states that have in-state resident tuition policies for undocumented students, and 12 states that not only allow undocumented students to pay in-state resident tuition at two-year public colleges and universities but also allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid.

What is clear is that college, regardless of type or whether students live on or off campus, is on the whole, unaffordable for undocumented students. Nationally, undocumented students who enroll at a public community and technical college would have to work nearly 29 hours a week, on average. But policy context matters. In states where undocumented students are expected to pay out-of-state tuition, they would have to work more than 35 hours a week. In contrast, in states where undocumented students are eligible for in-state resident tuition, they would have to work 23 hours a week; and in states where undocumented students qualify for in-state resident tuition and state financial aid, undocumented students would have to work just over 14 hours per week to study full time at a public community and technical college.

Sadly, a public community or technical college may be the most affordable option for undocumented students. Four-year public colleges and universities are all but out of reach for them. Nationally, undocumented students living off campus would have to work 48 hours per week, on average; while those living on campus would need to work a whopping 70 hours per week to cover the cost of a college education without going into debt. Neither of those options is particularly realistic or affordable.

The state picture is similarly depressing, though vastly different, depending on the policy context in each state. In states where undocumented students are subject to out-of-state tuition, they would have to work 85 hours per week to live on campus and 62 hours per week to live off campus. In states that have in-state resident tuition policies, undocumented students would need to work an average of 56 hours a week to live on campus and nearly 32 hours a week to live off campus. Even in the most favorable policy context, where undocumented students are eligible for in-state resident tuition and state financial aid, undocumented students would have to work nearly 41 hours per week to live on campus and 20 hours per week to live off campus.

Access to a higher education, it would seem, is largely a false promise that is dangled in front of undocumented students. And the coronavirus crisis could well be the final nail in the coffin for their college dreams, as the economy tanks and many of the jobs on which those students depend dry up. If ever there were a time for state leaders, colleges and universities to offer extra supports for undocumented students, this is it.

There are things that policymakers at the federal and state level could do to improve access for undocumented students. At the state level, legislatures and governors should:

  1. Adopt in-state resident tuition policies, making undocumented students and students with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) eligible for in-state resident tuition. In states where only those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status are eligible (Virginia), eligibility should be expanded.
  2. In states where undocumented students are denied access, legislatures should reverse those policies and make them more inclusive by including students with TPS. This would reduce the work burden on undocumented students by 29 hours a week.
  3. Every state should ensure that undocumented students are eligible for state financial-aid programs and state free-college programs. While the impact would vary based on the amount of the state grant, it would improve affordability.

The federal government could likewise expand DACA to include any student who graduated high school in the United States and has lived in their state for at least three years and give students who complete a credential or degree a path toward citizenship, and Congress would make undocumented students and students with TPS eligible for the Pell Grant.

Were states to adopt in-state resident tuition and award state aid to undocumented and TPS students, and the federal government to make undocumented students eligible for Pell Grants, those students would only have to work 29 hours, on average, per week to live on campus (if they qualified for the maximum Pell Grant) and eight hours a week to live off campus at a public four-year university. Additionally, increasing the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour might help state residents earn a living wage and reduce the number of hours students must work to go to college. But this may be wishful thinking right now.

Instead, the coronavirus crisis has exposed the gaping disparities that continue to hurt undocumented students, not to mention the disturbing irony of their situation: While we deny these students the stimulus relief checks, unemployment insurance, emergency aid, and other protections they so desperately need, we expect many of these same undocumented individuals to man the front lines as “essential workers,” exposing themselves to the dangers of COVID-19, while many of us practice social distancing and turn our backs on them from the relative comfort and safety of our homes. So much for the idea that “we’re all in this together.”

This, unfortunately, is why it is particularly important for institutions to ensure that undocumented students and TPS students are eligible for institutional aid, while scholarship-awarding entities should ensure that scholarships are not limited to DACA recipients or U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Additionally, given the lack of eligibility of undocumented students in the CARES Act, institutions should prioritize undocumented students as they develop their priorities for institutional emergency aid. Absent these actions, higher education may remain permanently out of reach for many Dreamers, and federal, state and institutional policies will only serve to remind undocumented students of the crushed dreams and broken promises of a higher education and a better life.