Illustration by Ashley Wu

Undocumented and Unsupported

Northwestern lacks resources and information for undocumented students.

By Jacob Meschke

Leezia Dhalla left Northwestern University with $110,000 in student loan debt. As an undocumented student, she received no financial aid from Northwestern.

“We showed them our tax returns and they said if I was a U.S. citizen I would’ve gotten almost a full ride,” Dhalla says. “There was nothing they were willing to do.”

Since graduating from Medill in 2012, Dhalla has worked multiple jobs to help pay off her loans. She benefits from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which makes recipients eligible for a stay of deportation proceedings and a temporary work permit for a two-year period. Her parents believed that money should not prevent her from an opportunity like Northwestern, so the encouraged her to attend. Now she’s feeling the financial burden.

“Now it’s very much how can I make as much money as possible to pay off all of [the debt],” Dhalla says.

In recent years, Northwestern has fallen behind neighboring institutions such as the University of Chicago, Dominican University and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) in its policies toward undocumented students. The university’s lack of tailored resources makes it difficult for undocumented students to attend.

In 2010, Northwestern President Morton Schapiro added his name to a letter to Congress signed by the presidents of nine Illinois universities in public support of the federal DREAM Act. The bill proposed a path to citizenship for eligible undocumented immigrants, but fell short by five votes in the Senate the same year and has not been reintroduced since.

“Universities are institutions committed to the education of young people. It is our duty to prepare the next generation for lives of service and achievement,” the statement says. “When one segment of our community is cut off from educational and career opportunities, it is also our duty to act.”

Two spots above Schapiro’s signature is that of Dominican University President Donna Carroll. Dominican is a private Catholic university of about 4,000 students in River Forest on Chicago’s West Side. Though on paper both schools appear strong supporters of undocumented immigrants, their policies differ widely. Dominican is now a national leader in its initiatives to provide support for undocumented students. Northwestern has not changed its policies at all.

“We’re in education, and our primary purpose is to fully develop the talents that students have,” Carroll says. “Providing those opportunities are part of our challenge and our obligation as educators.”

Financial Obstacles

Northwestern is a need-blind institution for applicants who are U.S. citizens, meaning that financial aid isn’t considered when deciding to admit an applicant. However, under Northwestern policy, undocumented students are considered international students, despite many of them having lived much of their lives in the United States. International applications are need-aware – their financial need is considered.

If accepted, undocumented students are eligible for almost zero financial aid. They are unable to receive federal or state financial aid, including Pell Grants, federal subsidized loans or the Illinois Monetary Award Program (MAP), all of which are often provided to lower-income households. Northwestern allots a small amount of aid for international students, which it calls “very limited.”

The annual cost of attending Northwestern, including room and board, is $68,095, slightly higher than the University of Chicago and more than double that of Dominican and UIC for an in-state student. A 2014 report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights estimated that 63 percent of undocumented immigrants in Illinois live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line (at the time $47,100 for a four-person household). The average financial aid award for a family income of $60,000 or less is more than $53,000 a year, according to Northwestern’s financial aid website. Undocumented students who wish to attend Northwestern must replace that aid on their own or with outside scholarships, many of which also have documentation requirements. Loans, too, can be problematic, since they often require a U.S. citizen cosigner, which can be difficult to find.

Average NU Financial Aid Package (NU Scholarship + State and Federal Grants)

Family Income Avg. NU Financial Aid Package
$0 – $29,999 $54,747
$30,000 – $59,999 $52,859
$60,000 – $89,999 $45,627
$90,000 – $119,999 $38,363
$120,000 – $149,999 $32,319
$150,000 or more $22,611

Source: Northwestern University

During her junior year at Northwestern, Dhalla compiled a report on the experiences of undocumented immigrants in higher education for the Center for Global Engagement, using Northwestern as a case study. She tells the story of an anonymous undocumented student named Mary, whose dream school was Northwestern. Mary was admitted, but received no financial assistance. Desperate to attend Northwestern, Mary spent hours applying to outside scholarships, without luck. Eventually she turned to a small, private school in Ohio that offered her near a full scholarship.

Alan Cubbage, vice president of University Relations, says that undocumented students are welcome to attend Northwestern, but the University mainly focuses its support on federal legislation.

“What we’ve been been trying to do as an institution is support the DREAM Act so that those students would become eligible for federal aid,” Cubbage says. “That’s really been the focus of the University’s efforts, is to get that first step of funding, so that then the University could add onto that as we do with domestic students.”

In contrast, Dominican has created its own policies in the past eight years. It does not require a social security number on its application, and considers all applicants, regardless of citizenship, eligible for its merit-based scholarships. In 2012, Dominican provided $274,000 in financial aid for 17 undocumented students, according to USA Today.

Arianna Salgado is an undocumented immigrant who graduated from Dominican in 2015. After speaking with Carroll, Salgado financed her education at Dominican through merit-based scholarships and private donors.

“It’s important to have welcoming policies because education should be accessible to everyone,” Salgado says. “I don’t believe any group of individuals should have roadblocks.”

In response to student activism, the University of Chicago released a message that same year, clarified its policy regarding undocumented students: The University considers all applicants, regardless of citizenship, for admission and “every type of private financial aid that the University offers.”

“Why is it so hard to identify an undocumented student at Northwestern?” Dhalla says. “It hurts us at the end of the day, as a school.”

Leaving Prospective Students in the Dark

Roughly 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year, and between 5 and 10 percent of that number continue on to higher education, according to a 2013 study by researchers from Loyola University of Chicago, Fairfield University and Santa Clara University. With as many as 7,000 undocumented students finding their way to colleges and universities across the country each year, undoubtedly a few prospective students will set their sights on Northwestern, ranked the 12th best university in the country by U.S. News & World Report.

Northwestern currently provides no online informational resources specifically for prospective undocumented students. Searches of the word “undocumented” on both Northwestern’s financial aid and admissions websites receive zero search results.

Responsibility for knowing and answering questions about the University’s policies towards undocumented students are also unclear. Cubbage recommends that a prospective undocumented student contact the offices of admissions and financial aid, but NBN’s inquiry at the office of financial aid was referred to the associate provost for enrollment, who declined an interview. The office of admissions offers no information on their website for specific counselors, and multiple interview requests with the dean of undergraduate admissions went unanswered. The office of the president declined to comment on the topic, citing President Schapiro’s busy schedule.

“[Officials] on campus don’t know what to do with these applicants or students,” Dhalla says. “We don’t have resources for you, there’s nobody that can answer your questions and you’re kind of on your own.”

Originally undocumented, Maria Alejandra Salazar (SESP ’11) gained permanent resident status during her junior year of high school. Now she works with with undocumented students and their families as the Director of Multicultural Resources at Northside Community Resources in Rogers Park, Chicago.

“There are so many points in an undocumented student’s life where they could be easily dissuaded from pursuing any kind of higher education,” Salazar says. “Students can get really depressed and can stop trying.”

These points include researching schools and their financial and information resources for undocumented students, she says, as well as how to handle applications that ask for citizenship information.

Salazar says the resources a university offers and how accessible they are can make a huge difference for an undocumented student trying to continue their academic career after high school – exactly the sort of thing Northwestern lacks.

“If I’m a high school student anywhere, and I’m trying to find out more about Northwestern, who do I talk to, what office, who would actually help me navigate this?” Salazar says. “College is confusing enough, especially if you are the first one in your family to go to college.”

Salgado never considered Northwestern because she heard from other undocumented students that the school was “very unwelcoming in terms of the application process and economically.”

“I was looking for a school that would not force me to provide a social security number and [would allow] me to access some financial support,” she says.

The University of Chicago offers information on its Campus and Student Life website explaining its policies as well as relevant laws to undocumented students. The site also lists a permanent, designated contact for undocumented students to reach out to.

Similarly, UIC maintains a specific website to “provide information and resources to current and prospective undocumented students and their families.” The site includes explanations of laws and rules on citizenship and financial aid, explanations of UIC policies and links to independent scholarships eligible to undocumented students.

“If you have these resources, there has to be a way to let prospective students know about it,” Salazar says. “If it’s going to be this complicated maze, why would I apply to [Northwestern] when I can apply to UIC and I know what I’m going to get?”

Attempts at Change

Students at Northwestern have worked towards change in the past, but with little success. Before graduating, Salazar was involved in a now-defunct student coalition called Undocumented NU that attempted to work with administration but made little headway.

Dhalla’s report highlights several efforts by students in 2003 to lobby for changes in policy, including one proposal supported by Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. Then-president of Northwestern Henry Bienen pledged to “continue to study this issue,” the report says.

Cubbage says the University is not currently reevaluating its policy toward undocumented students, stressing its support of future federal reform. If there was a conversation, he says, it “would involve the admissions office, the financial aid office, the provost office, all of the top administrative offices of the University.”

“I don’t feel like Northwestern is really doing anything to support undocumented students at the University because they haven’t created a forum for any kind of discussion about this issue,” Dhalla says. “By not talking about it we have created an environment that’s basically saying we don’t care.”

Money Matters

Northwestern is a private institution, relying on an endowment supplemented by investments and individual donors to provide funding for the university, including financial aid.

Endowment per full time equivalent (FTE) student is an institution’s endowment divided by the number of full-time students it has. The measurement is commonly used to show a university’s ability to provide financial assistance to individual students. As of 2013, Northwestern’s endowment per FTE student was $330,031, dwarfing that of Dominican’s at $8,035, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The endowment per FTE student at the University of Chicago, a school that provides all private financial aid to all applicants, was $429,800, relatively close in comparison.

Large donors to a well-endowed university can influence policy decisions. Northwestern is potentially one of these institutions. As of 2015 the University’s endowment was one of the top 10 in the country at $9.8 billion, and in the past year it has received several multimillion dollar donations, including two over $100 million.

According to Carroll, alumni and donor pushback was sometimes an obstacle in Dominican’s push for greater support of undocumented students.

“When you take a controversial stand on something like documentation or immigration, you do it with some element of risk,” Carroll says. “You’re not sure how alumni will react, how donors will react, how policy makers will react.”

Carroll says that although some alumni and donors didn’t personally agree with the decision, in the end they understood the University’s policies “in the context of its mission,” stressing Dominican’s Catholic roots.

Yet some of Northwestern’s most prominent alumni are strong advocates of immigration reform and supporters of undocumented students.

Crate & Barrel co-founder Carole Segal, who graduated from Northwestern in 1960 and whose recent donations helped finance the new Segal Visitors Center, is a strong supporter of immigration reform and immigrant rights. She is the co-chairman of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition Steering Committee and has appeared on MSNBC and other national media to advocate for immigration reform.

In 2013, co-founder of Groupon and 2003 Northwestern graduate Andrew Mason was a mentor in the DREAMER Hackathon, an event hosted by, an immigration reform lobbying group led by Mark Zuckerburg.

Northwestern offers a scholarship called Good Neighbor, Great University to graduates of Evanston and Chicago public high schools, which it prides itself on as strengthening ties with the City of Chicago. In 2013, the city released a statement declaring its support for undocumented students in Chicago, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that $275,000 had been raised for the Illinois Dream Fund, a state scholarship specifically for undocumented students.

Cubbage reiterates Northwestern’s support for the the passage of the federal DREAM Act as the path to provide financial aid to undocumented students at Northwestern. He says providing full financial aid from only private sources for all international students would be too expensive.

“We do not have the resources to meet full need for international students, including undocumented students,” Cubbage says.

For Carroll, the decision is an obvious one. She believes that Dominican’s and any university’s goals should be to do all they can to educate anyone who wants to be educated.

“Education in general has a social justice mission,” Carroll says. “Academics are about providing those transforming opportunities for students, and that’s the core argument.”

Dhalla goes back to the key message in the letter President Schapiro signed in 2010: the duty to act when a segment of the community is cut off from education.

“The principle here is that Northwestern is an incredible school, and our values should be that we want the best,” Dhalla says. “If we really want the best, it doesn’t matter where they live, if their family has enough money or where they come from.”