Education can mean anything from primary and secondary education and higher education, to adult and continuing education, life skills training, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, and skills training programs. Various forms of education can bridge the gap between immigrants and the job market they land in the midst of.

This section will cover the following topics:

  • Elementary and Secondary Education
    • Undocumented Children Unaccompanied by Adults
    • Enrolling in Public School
  • Higher education
    • Who can attend college?
    • Financial Aid and Tuition
    • Resources for Undocumented Students
  • English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)

Elementary and Secondary Education

Under Federal law, states and school districts are to provide all children in the United States with equal access to a basic public education, regardless of their own citizenship or immigration status or that of their parents or guardians. The United States Supreme Court held in the case of Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982) that a State may not deny access to a basic public education to any child residing in the State, whether present in the United States legally or otherwise. That means that all children and young adults have the same right to attend public primary and secondary schools (K-12) as do U.S. citizens and permanent residents. This also includes “children who are awaiting immigration proceedings while residing in local communities with a parent, family member, or other appropriate adult sponsor” (U.S. Department of Education).  Like other children, undocumented students are obliged under state law to attend school until they reach a mandated age.

Enrolling in public school

When enrolling in school, the parent or legal guardian may be asked to submit specific documentation such as proof of residency in the school district, proof of age for the child, or social security numbers for the children or parents. The failure to produce any of these documents, however, should not prevent enrollment in the school. The school district should furthermore not inquire about the immigration status of the adult nor the child during this process. If you are having trouble enrolling in school, you should seek legal advice.

If the parent or guardian speaks another language than English, the school is required to ensure “meaningful communication” by offering translated materials or a language interpreter, and must provide a translator at any meetings. Language assistance must be free and provided by appropriate and competent staff or outside resources

Visit MassLegalHelp for more information on the rights of undocumented youths.

Download the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement’s report on the rights of undocumented children in the U.S. school system here.

Download the U.S. Department of Education‘s Resource Guide on Supporting Undocumented Students in High School and College here.

The Attorney General has also created an advisory on the Rights and Obligations of Schools in Response to ICE Requests for Access or Information.

Higher Education

As refugees have legal immigration status, they are eligible to attend U.S. universities the same way that U.S. citizens are. Given their specific circumstances, however, refugee students may need additional help with the application process and with paying for tuition. The following section will list rights and resources specifically for this group.

Financial Aid and In-state Tuition

Federal financial assistance is available to U.S. citizen and eligible noncitizens, which includes those with “refugee” or “asylum granted” status. Eligible non-citizens are described as permanent residents or those who are deemed by the U.S. Department of Education “to be in the U.S. for other than a temporary purpose with the intention of becoming a citizen or permanent resident” (See the Federal Student Aid’s discussion on eligible non-citizens here, and read more about eligibility criteria and how to apply via the U.S. Department of Education here). Federal Student Aid includes grants, loans and work-study funds, and one applies by submitting the Federal Application for Free Student Aid (FAFSA). 

Massachusetts financial aid programs for students include grants, scholarships, tuition wavers and loans, as well as tuition reimbursement for certain professionals post graduation. Most of these programs are available to eligible non-citizens, defined as above. Additional requirements, such as Massachusetts residency and enrollment in a qualified educational program, applies. Read more about requirements at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education’s Office of Student Financial Assistance.

Individuals who can establish residence in Massachusetts may ble eligible to pay in-state tuition, which is significantly lower than the tuition charged of out-of-state individuals.  The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education states in their Residency Status Policy that “Non-citizens who are in (or who are eligible to apply and who have applied for) refugee/asylum status are likewise eligible to be considered for Massachusetts residency for tuition purposes provided that they meet the same requirements for establishing residency in Massachusetts as are required of a United States citizen. All non-citizens must provide appropriate United States Citizenship and Immigration Services documentation to verify their status.” This means that refugees may qualify for in-state tuition as long as they meet the criteria for residency. Check with the university for any additional residency requirements.

Scholarship and Financial Aid for Refugees and Asylees

The Refugee Center Online lists scholarships exclusively available for refugee and immigrant students. This means that you might have a higher chance of winning one of these scholarships.

Search the U.S. Department of Labor’s free online scholarship database here.

Visit the Office for Student Financial Assistance here (via Massachusetts Department of of Higher Education), and see their list of State Financial Aid Programs.

The Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement’s lists of various scholarship opportunities for immigrant students.

The Emergency Refugee Assistance Scholarship Fund is specifically for refugees and asylum-seekers, and give preference to Syrians.

IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis consists of over 80 higher education institutions around the world that have committed support for Syrian students, primarily in the form of full and partial scholarships. Read more about the Consortium and scholarship opportunities for Syrian students whose education has been disrupted as a result of the war here.

Additionally, Wheaton College, a private, four-year school in Norton, MA, has created a full scholarship for refugees from war-torn countries.

Resources for Refugees and Asylees

The Massachusetts Office of Financial Assistance has compiled a list of resources to help you navigate the process of applying for financial aid and paying for college, as well as a financial aid glossary.

The Refugee Center online provides through information on the college application process.

Coursera offers an online course on applying to U.S. universities.

Boston Public SchoolsWe Dream Together
Lists a range of resources and know-your-rights information for immigrants students and families, as well as educators.

Visit the City of Boston for a list of city services and benefits, including education.

Online Education

An online education cuts through the inevitable backlog of applying to physical universities and allows students to continue learning immediately without having to worry about language barriers or being overwhelmed by a pace that’s too fast or inconvenient class times.

Several universities, including Harvard, and online education sites like Coursera are making classes free for refugee students as part of a U.S. based program. The program, launched jointly with the U.S. Department of State, will allow nonprofit organizations to apply for financial aid for refugees to take courses for free.

The Refugee Center Online classroom offers free offer online classes to help refugees and immigrants learn and succeed in America, including classes on GED and Citizenship test preparation.

Additionally, EdX offers high school courses online classes from many of the world’s top universities for free. You can get a completion certificate for a fee. The fee depends on the course, but typically costs a few hundred dollars.

English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) 

The English Works Campaign, a coalition of immigrant community leaders, labor unions, business and civic leaders, educators, and advocates across Massachusetts, states that “Over one-third (1.1 million) of the state’s 3.2 million workers need Adult Basic Education (ABE) and/or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes to meet the needs of our rapidly changing economy. Nearly 500,000, or 7 out of 10 adult immigrants in the state, are in of need of services in order to fully participate in the state’s economy” (English Works).

Massachusetts Adult Literacy Hotline 
For information and referrals for over 300 adult education programs, contact the Massachusetts Adult Literacy Hotline at (800) 447-8844, or use the Find A Program tool on their webpage. The phone operators speaks English and Spanish, and will ask you your name, phone number, area code and the type of courses you are interested in.

Programs include one-on-one tutoring as well as small-group or classroom instruction to adult learners, and cover basic reading, math, adult basic education, English language training, family literacy, High School Equivalency Test preparation or testing sites. When you have found a course you’re interested in, you can use the contact information to inquire about any immigration status requirements.

Literacy Volunteers of Massachusetts (LVM)
LVM trains volunteer tutors to provide free, confidential and individualized tutoring to adults in basic literacy and English as a Second Language. Potential student must be over 16 years of age, cannot be enrolled in school and must be able to make a regular commitment to tutoring. Please note that LVM programs may have a waiting list, depending on the location. They also offer a list of ESOL resources and statistics.

Massachusetts Public Libraries
Public libraries are also good resources for English learners. In addition to free books, DVDs, CDs, internet and computer access, many libraries across Massachusetts offer free literacy services, conversation groups, ESOL, and citizenship programs, as well as computer classes. Each branch has an Immigrant Information Corner with immigration, financial planning, and tax assistance information, and some

MIRA Coalition
The MIRA Coalition are part of the English Works Campaign, and offer information about ESOL resources on their pages.

Resettlement agencies, such as the International Institute of New England, offer English classes as well. IINE offers ESOL classes to its refugee and asylee clients, but also offers free evening ESOL classes open to all immigrants.


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