- If you are a parent or caregiver
- If you are undocumented
- If you are or were in the military
- If you’re over 50 years old
- If you need help with housing or food
- If you are or were in the foster system
- If your parents didn’t go to college
- If you’re incarcerated or formerly incarcerated
- If you need a high school diploma or equivalent
- If your previous education was in a different country
- If you have a disability
- If you are LGBTQ+
Colleges want you to attend them — many have specialized resources to support students in various situations. You're a parent of young children? Enter: on-campus child care. You're a military veteran? Here's a bunch of free money for school.
Many of these situations also require their own set of considerations. How do you find out about accommodations for disabilities? If you have a felony on your record, is that a problem? If you already have a degree from another country, do you have to restart your education in the U.S.?
Here are some basics to get you started.
If you are a parent or caregiver
If you have young children to think about while you’re also going to school, here are resources that may help:
On-campus child care: This is available at many community colleges, as well as schools like Cal Poly Pomona, Occidental, UC Irvine, and CSU Long Beach. Some of these schools — primarily community colleges — offer free or low-cost care as part of their early childhood education programs, where students studying childhood development get hands-on experience working with children under supervision. Some schools go even farther: L.A. Valley College has a dedicated Family Resource Center that not only offers child care but also parenting classes, one-on-one mentoring, counseling, and other supportive services. Ask a school what kinds of resources it has to support parents and families.
Other free or low-cost child care: A local child care resource and referral agency can help you find a child care provider and find out if you qualify for free or subsidized services.
Family housing: Some colleges have family-friendly living spaces on campus so that students with children can have more convenient access to school resources. Family housing is offered at several local universities like CSU Northridge, UCLA, and UC Riverside.
Virtual programs and flexible schedules: Read more about that here.
Child care grants: You can get money that's specifically reserved for parents attending school. Here are two ways:
- The federal Child Care Access Means Parents In School (CCAMPIS) grant subsidizes on-campus child care for low-income parents who are pursuing higher education.
- The state Cal Grant offers up to $6,000 for qualified students with dependent children, in addition to whatever you might already get from the Cal Grant.
You have to fill out a financial aid form and meet certain income requirements to qualify. Read more about the financial aid process in this section.
Support for parents on CalWORKS: If you get public assistance from the CalWORKS program, you are eligible for specialized support at public colleges. CalWORKS college staff can help you with county paperwork and work-study opportunities. Another program, Cooperative Agencies and Resources for Education (CARE), is geared toward single parents and helps with counseling, assistance with food and transportation, tutoring, and other support. CARE is part of the state-funded Extended Opportunity Programs & Services (EOPS) program, available at all community colleges. You’ll need to qualify for EOPS and receive cash aid from the state in order to be eligible. Check with a school to see full requirements for its EOPS and CARE programs.
If you are undocumented
You can definitely attend higher education in California without U.S. citizenship or legal permanent resident status — and in fact, the state has made several efforts to make the process easier.
One thing to figure out is how much tuition you’ll be charged. You can qualify for in-state tuition (which is about three times cheaper than what out-of-state students pay) at a public college in California depending on how long you’ve lived in the state. You don’t have to be a DACA recipient, you can be enrolled full-time or part-time, and it doesn’t matter how old you are.
You just have to meet three conditions:
- You spent at least three years in a California school: You must have attended a California high school, community college, or adult school for at least three years. It’s also acceptable if you completed three years of high school coursework and spent three years attending a California elementary or high school.
- You earned a high school diploma or associate degree in California: You must have earned your high school diploma or certificate of completion at a California school, or passed a high school equivalency test (GED, HiSet, TASC). If you didn’t graduate high school in California, it’s also acceptable if you earned an associate degree from a California community college or completed the minimum requirements to transfer to a CSU or UC.
- You sign an affidavit: Verify in writing that you meet the above requirements. You may also need to submit transcripts and other documentation. Submit your affidavit once you’ve been accepted to a school and before the school’s specified deadline.
These conditions are part of a law known as AB 540 that was expanded under later legislation. You’ll see the phrase “AB 540-eligible” on a lot of applications and information sheets. Nonprofit organization Immigrants Rising has more information about the affidavits and other things you need to know about getting in-state tuition.
Other things to keep in mind:
You have options after graduation. Having work authorization under DACA obviously opens more avenues for jobs after finishing school. But even if you aren’t on DACA, there are ways to continue your education or work as an independent contractor in order to make a living. Here’s Immigrants Rising’s guide with more details; they also feature conversations and tips about career pathways via Instagram.
Fill out a California Dream Act application for financial aid. Undocumented students don’t have access to federal financial aid, but you can get state-based aid like the Cal Grant if you meet requirements. Fill out a California Dream Act application, not a FAFSA — if you submit the wrong form, your application might be held up. Here’s more information about the California Dream Act application from the California Student Aid Commission.
Individual schools may have additional aid for you. Even if you can’t access federal aid, individual schools can still help fill the gap with their own work-study programs, grants or scholarships. Call a school’s financial aid or scholarship office for more information, or check their websites to see what might be available.
Many scholarships don’t require any proof of residency or citizenship. Here are some organizations that keep track of these scholarships:
- Immigrants Rising
- Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)
- My Undocumented Life
- Dreamers Roadmap
Talk to someone for help. Many schools throughout California have departments or student groups that support undocumented students on campus. They also help prospective students with financial aid, navigating the college landscape, and getting applications together. Search for contacts available at community colleges, CSUs, and UCs on this map from the Campaign for College Opportunity.
If you are or were in the military
Military funds for school: Veterans and active-duty members of the military get educational benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that can cover a big chunk of costs.
- The Post-9/11 GI Bill and Montgomery GI Bill cover up to 36 months of tuition, with eligibility depending on when and how long you served. The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers the full cost of in-state tuition at public colleges (or a set maximum amount for private universities) and provides stipends for housing and books. The Montgomery GI Bill pays a flat monthly rate directly to students for the duration of the program. Whether you’re going to school full-time or part-time, in-person or online, or for a degree or short-term credential will likely make a difference in what program works best for you. The Military Times has a helpful comparison to help you weigh your options.
- If you’re on active duty and stationed in California, you can qualify for a non-resident college fee waiver, which would effectively give you in-state tuition rates for attending a public college.
- The VA’s Yellow Ribbon Program can also give you additional funds for expenses that the GI bills don’t cover, but you have to meet minimum requirements based on your service, and your school must participate in the program. Here are more details from the VA, along with a list of schools that are currently participating in the Yellow Ribbon program.
Many benefits are also available to veterans with disabilities, military members trying to become teachers, dependents of military members, and a lot more groups. Read more details via CalVet.
Military Friendly ratings: These school ratings come from the Military Friendly Schools survey, conducted by a private company to gauge which schools have benefits, resources, and programs that serve members of the military and their families. Find survey results for California schools here.
Transfer priority: In California, student veterans in community college get first priority for transferring to CSUs and UCs once they’ve met transfer requirements. (Read more about transferring in this section.) The VA has more guides and tools to help you choose a school, compare GI Bill benefits at different schools, and apply for the program that works best for you.
Credit for military experience: Work you did in the military can translate into school credits and get you closer to finishing a program than if you started out from scratch. Read more about that in this section.
Veterans resource centers: Many schools have these centers to advise prospective students and ease you into the transition after you enroll. Look one up and ask how your benefits apply and what services or resources they have for student veterans. The College Board’s BigFuture search tool lets you filter for schools that have veterans’ counselors. You can also look to your nearest CalVet Veteran’s Service Center for more general information about benefits.
If you’re over 50 years old
If you want cheap or free educational courses geared toward older adults, senior centers and public libraries offer classes for art, recreational activities, languages, computer skills, and more, while non-credit “lifelong learning” programs at colleges across the state might also dive into history, finance, or health.
But if you’re an older adult looking for a credential — or perhaps a career change — you might need different resources. Here are some that may help:
Who’s hiring older workers? One challenge for those looking for employment is finding out which industries or jobs have the most opportunities for older workers. Here’s a 2019 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics highlighting fast-growing jobs that also employ a large share of workers age 55 and older. Top jobs include real estate appraisers, technical writers, tax preparers, and property managers.
The Bureau’s labor data also points out jobs where workers over 55 made up at least one-third of employees across the occupation. The list includes archivists, curators, clergy, proofreaders, and medical transcriptionists.
AARP’s Employer Pledge Program also showcases a list of employers that have pledged to recruit workers across all ages. Search the list of companies here.
Free tuition for students over 60: The CSU system has a longstanding Over 60 Program that waives tuition and most fees for any students age 60 and older. There are a few important caveats: Each campus has its own discretion on how many of these fee waivers to grant, so it may not be available at every single CSU. Additionally, where it is available, Over 60 Program students get last priority in registration — that is, you’ll only be able to register once all other admitted students have claimed their seats. The waiver also doesn’t apply if you’re taking classes through their extended education programs. Schools like CSU Dominguez Hills also have an Older Adult Center to support these students on campus.
Aside from that, CSU Long Beach has its own Older Adult Degree program that allows students 60 and over to pay “greatly reduced fees”; contact their enrollment services division for more details.
Training and guidance for older adults: Here are a few programs and workshops that can provide more personalized help for older adults trying to navigate education and the workforce:
- AARP’s Back To Work 50+ program hosts workshops and coaching sessions for older adults looking for employment or going back to school.
- The government’s Senior Community Service Employment Program helps low-income, unemployed seniors get training and placement in part-time government or non-profit jobs. You can find a program provider near you with this search tool.
- The National Older Worker Career Center has a jobs database and a series of programs to connect workers age 55 and over with employers.
- The National Asian Pacific Center on Aging works to establish partnerships with companies to create a hiring pipeline for older workers. It also has a help line you can call for guidance.
If you need help with housing or food
If you’re not sure whether you’re going to have a consistent, adequate place to live while you’re in school, here are a few things that may help:
Report your housing situation on FAFSA: The FAFSA financial aid form allows you to report whether you’re a youth (under the age of 24) experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless. This applies if you’re in any situation where you don’t have fixed, regular, or adequate housing — including if you’re living in a motel or car, temporarily living with other people if you have nowhere else to go, or fleeing an abusive parent. If you answer yes, school financial aid departments will be able to connect you with aid or school programs to help with housing or other basic needs.
The form also asks if you’ve received an official homeless determination from a high school, transitional housing program or shelter. If you answer yes, a school financial aid office may follow up to ask you to provide documentation. If you don’t have any, the school may have their own way of verifying your housing status — contact the financial aid office for more details.
The FAFSA will also ask if you are “unaccompanied,” meaning not with your parents or guardians. If you check yes, you’ll have the option not to submit your parents’ financial information and apply as an independent student.
Here’s more information from the Student Aid Commission about filling out the FAFSA as someone experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
Campus “peer navigators”: L.A. County’s Campus Peer Navigator Program provides liaisons at 21 community college campuses to help students facing housing insecurity connect with school and county resources. The liaisons are all former community college students who experienced homelessness themselves. Here’s a list of peer navigators at campuses that are part of the program.
Basic needs programs: Many schools have food pantries and programs to connect students with community housing resources, applications for government assistance programs like CalFresh, transportation, and other basic necessities. Contact the school and ask for more information about its basic needs offerings, or search the school’s website to get details. These departments can talk you through the available resources for your particular situation, even if you’re not yet enrolled in school.
Application fee waivers: If your income is below a certain threshold, you can get your fees waived for college applications and entrance tests like the SAT. Read more about that here.
Extended Opportunity Program & Services (EOPS): All California community colleges have an EOPS program (sometimes called EOP&S) that supports low-income students. Cal State schools and four UCs have a similar program called EOP. These programs provide you with assistance for books and transportation, individual counseling, tutoring, and help applying for financial aid. You have to apply for EOPS or EOP and meet income and academic requirements. You may also have to demonstrate that you have an “educational hardship” — that includes being a first-generation college student, for example. Look up a school’s EOP or EOPS program on the school website or contact a program officer for specific eligibility details.
Community organizations: Many colleges have partnerships with community organizations that support students experiencing homelessness. Here are a few of them:
- Boyle Heights-based organization Jovenes Inc provides rental subsidies to housing insecure community college students around east and southeast L.A. There’s no upper age limit for students who can get these services, and it serves parenting students as well.
- Safe Place For Youth provides education guidance, employment workshops, and internship help for youth experiencing homelessness.
- The L.A. LGBT Center offers short-term housing, employment programs, college counseling, scholarships, and mentorship for youth 18-24 experiencing homelessness.
- The Opportunity House is a 50-bed residential community that provides housing and round-the-clock health and social support for college students pursuing a degree. You must be a currently enrolled student in L.A. County in order to be eligible for the program.
- The Trojan Shelter and Bruin Shelter are small, student-run housing complexes for young people experiencing homelessness and enrolled in a two- or four-year college institution. Residents get communal showers, lockers, and daily meals, and get paired up with case managers. As of mid-2021, the Trojan Shelter was full and the Bruin Shelter’s opening has been delayed, but you can stay in touch with the organizers to find out about vacancies.
- It Takes a Village, a joint effort by between Searchlight Society and Victor Valley College, provides housing and case management support for students at that school who are experiencing homelessness.
If you are or were in the foster system
There are a few resources specific to students connected to the foster system. (If you’re dealing with housing or food insecurity, be sure to read up in that section, too.)
Chafee Foster Youth Grant Program: This government grant offers up to $5,000 a year to cover educational expenses for current or former foster youth. You have to have been in foster care for at least one day between the ages of 16 and 18, have financial need, and apply for the grant before your 26th birthday.
Increased eligibility for Cal Grants: If you are or were in the foster care system and you’re under the age of 26, you can get more access to Cal Grant funds through the Cal Grant B Foster Youth Award. For example, if you were already eligible for Cal Grant B (reserved for low-income students), as a foster youth you could renew that award for eight years of school, rather than the default six years. You would also be able to apply for the High School Entitlement Award up until your 26th birthday, whereas the default eligibility is only for current high school seniors and those who graduated in the past year. Read more details via the California Student Aid Commission website.
NextUp and Guardian Scholars: The NextUp program, also known as CAFYES (Cooperating Agencies Foster Youth Educational Support), and the Guardian Scholars Program are part of the state-funded Extended Opportunity Programs & Services (EOPS), available at all community colleges, and Extended Opportunity Programs (EOP), available at Cal State schools and some UCs. They aim to help enroll and retain foster youth in California’s public colleges and provide counseling, academic support, tutoring, and help with things like textbooks and transportation.
While all community colleges have an EOPS program, not every campus has these services for foster youth — you may need to call a school to ask about it, then apply to get in. Here’s a directory of all the foster youth services at Cal State schools. You can check individual UC school websites for their own programs. They go by several different names: for instance, UCLA has Bruin Guardian Scholars, while UC Berkeley has Hope Scholars and UC Irvine has Foster Youth Resilience in Education.
Foster Youth Success Initiative Liaisons: Each community college campus has a liaison you can reach out to for help navigating the application process, financial aid, and any questions you might have about the school. Call a school or search its website to find out how to get in touch with a liaison.
If your parents didn’t go to college
If your parents never attended or completed college, you’re considered a first-generation student. Because first-generation students are less likely to have guidance from experienced family members about navigating higher education, there are several resources specifically to help.
Keep in mind that schools may have different definitions of “first generation”: for some, it may be if your parents never finished a degree, while others may consider it to be if your parents didn’t attend any college at all. It’s best to check with an individual school to see what their definition might be.
Summer bridge programs: Many schools have a summer program to help students get familiar with a college environment and ease them in. The summer bridge program may include classes to get familiar with class scheduling and services offered on campus, as well as a chance to connect with other first-generation students at the school. Call a school or search its website to see if it offers a summer bridge program and find out how to apply.
Extended Opportunity Program & Services (EOPS): The EOPS program (sometimes called EOP&S) can be found at all community colleges in California. There’s a similar program called EOP at Cal State schools and four UC campuses: Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Davis, and Santa Barbara (the other UCs have comparable programs under other names, as well). Students who are low-income (with an Expected Financial Contribution of zero) and first-generation are eligible. You have to apply for the program (ask your school for application requirements). Once you’re in, it can provide you with individual counseling, as well as helping with books, transportation, financial aid applications, and more. Call a school or look up details on its website to find more specifics.
TRIO Programs: The federal government has eight educational opportunity programs known as TRIO. One TRIO program serves low-income college students who are first-generation or have a disability, helping those who want to pursue an associate’s degree with the ultimate goal of transferring to a four-year university. The program supplies one-on-one counseling and academic support, tutoring, and help with the transfer process. You have to apply to get into the TRIO program — check with a particular school for their eligibility requirements.
Scholarships for first-generation students: There are quite a lot of scholarship opportunities available for first-generation students. Here’s a search tool from online resource RiseFirst.
On-campus support: In addition to formal bridge programs, many campuses have student groups or resource hubs that are designed to give support to first-generation students. (Examples: UCLA’s First To Go program, USC’s First Generation Plus Success Center, CSU Long Beach’s GenExcel mentoring program, and a lot more.) Ask about first-generation resources at a school you’re interested in and see what they may be able to provide.
If you’re incarcerated or formerly incarcerated
Currently incarcerated students
All California prisons have educational programs available, ranging from GED and literacy courses to vocational programs. Associate’s degree and certificate programs — and in some cases, bachelor’s degree programs — may be available too, but chances are the cost will not be covered. Here are a few things to know:
You may qualify for free tuition under the California College Promise Grant. Low-income incarcerated people are eligible for the California College Promise Grant, which waives enrollment fees at select community colleges, if they meet all other requirements.
You may qualify for a Pell grant. The federal Pell Grant, reserved for low-income students, is only available to incarcerated people who are in a local, municipal, or county facility, or in a juvenile justice facility. If you are in a federal or state prison, you are not currently eligible — but that will change soon.
Beginning July 1, 2023, anyone in federal or state prison — regardless of conviction or length of sentence — can qualify for the Pell grant if they meet other grant requirements. That’s due to a spending bill passed by Congress in December 2020 that reversed the longstanding restrictions on Pell grants for incarcerated people. Reminder: you’ll have to fill out a FAFSA to determine whether you’re eligible.
You won’t qualify for federal student loans or the Cal Grant. Regardless of whether you’re in an adult or juvenile correctional facility, you won’t be eligible for federal student loans or the Cal Grant until after you’re released.
Enrolling in a higher education program can shorten your sentence. In California state prisons, anyone who enrolls in an educational program can earn milestone credits or educational merit credits, which can move up parole hearings or release dates. Only those who are serving a death sentence or life without possibility of parole may not earn these credits.
This fact sheet from the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center has more information about the educational programs offered at California prisons and how they work. And the Federal Student Aid Commission has more information about financial aid for incarcerated students.
Previously incarcerated students
Reentry advocacy group Root and Rebound has a comprehensive step-by-step guide for people thinking about higher education. But here are some quick basics:
California public colleges won’t ask about your history with the justice system (with some exceptions). While some colleges have never asked about applicants’ criminal histories on their application forms, it’s now expressly prohibited statewide under a law passed in 2020 to “ban the box” on college applications. This change takes effect beginning in the fall term of 2021.
However, because people with a felony conviction are still banned from many professional licenses and law enforcement jobs, those programs may still ask about prior felonies and bar admission for those with convictions. (The Root and Rebound guide has more details on jobs that tend to have more barriers for people with conviction histories.)
You can qualify for financial aid. Once you’re released from prison, you won’t face most of the restrictions on federal financial aid that apply to incarcerated people. An exception: if you served an involuntary civil commitment for a sexual offense, you won’t be eligible for a Pell grant.
Previously, those convicted of a drug offense while receiving federal student aid weren’t able to receive student aid again without completing an approved drug rehabilitation program. That provision is getting phased out, however, and if you see a question about it on the FAFSA, your answer won’t affect your eligibility for aid. Read more about federal financial aid for formerly incarcerated people from the Federal Student Aid Commission.
You’ll also be eligible for state-based financial aid, including the Cal Grant, once you’re released from incarceration.
Campus organizations can help with admissions, housing, supplies, and more. Many student groups and resource centers help those who’ve been involved with the justice system transition to higher education, including navigating the admissions process, connecting with community organizations for housing, or getting supplies or academic help. Below are some of the programs at California’s public colleges. You can search websites of other colleges to see if they have similar programs.
- Project Rebound Consortium is a network across 14 CSU campuses that supports formerly incarcerated students access and earn college degrees. It assists prospective students with the admissions process, advises on financial aid applications, offers academic support, centers the leadership of those impacted by mass incarceration, provides support with employment and career services, extends tutoring and mentorship opportunities, and strives to create a safe space for students with an incarceration experience to thrive. In the greater L.A. area, Project Rebound is active at Cal State L.A., Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Northridge, and Cal Poly Pomona. Cal State Fullerton’s Project Rebound is also the first campus to have a transformative housing program for formerly incarcerated university students.
- The Rising Scholars Network, part of the philanthropic arm of California’s community college system, has programs at community colleges across the state to support formerly incarcerated people in higher education. See the directory of all colleges and programs involved here.
- The Underground Scholars Initiative, found at UCLA, UC Irvine, and UC Riverside (as well as other UCs throughout California), is dedicated to building a pathway between prison and the higher education system, a well as advocating for the needs of formerly incarcerated students on campus.
If you need a high school diploma or equivalent
Nearly all higher education programs and jobs in the United States will require you to have a high school diploma or equivalent first. If you didn’t finish high school, or if your credentials aren’t recognized in the United States, you can get a U.S. diploma by completing a full range of high school courses with passing grades. Depending on how many courses you need to finish and how many you can take at a time, getting your diploma could take a few months to a few years.
You can also take tests that will serve as equivalents to a high school diploma. These include the GED (General Educational Development), TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion), and HiSET (High School Equivalency Test). Taking these tests could be a quicker way of earning a high school credential, depending on how long it takes you to prepare for them. There are preparation courses available that could take a few months to a few years to complete. You are technically allowed to take the tests without any preparation courses beforehand, but it’s usually not recommended given the difficulty of the tests.
Colleges throughout Southern California will recognize a high school diploma or GED, so the option you decide on depends on what works best for you. Here are a few places that can help you get either one of these:
- An adult education school: These are run by local school districts (in L.A. they are run by L.A. Unified’s Division of Adult and Career Education) and offer GED preparation and high school diploma programs, in addition to English as a Second Language and citizenship test preparation. Here’s a list of adult education schools run by L.A. Unified.
- The public library: Many libraries can give you free access to the Career Online High School program, which allows you to take courses to earn your diploma and an additional career certificate at the same time. Here’s information about participating through the L.A. County Public Library system.
- A community college: Most community colleges will have either a high school diploma or GED preparation program available that you can enroll in. Community college classes are low-cost, not free — but taking these courses through a community college may provide an easier transition to enroll directly in that college’s higher education programs afterward.
If your previous education was in a different country
If you went to high school or college in another country, and you’re not in the United States on a work or student visa, you may need to figure out how your previous work experience or education credentials are recognized in the U.S. — and what to do if they aren’t. (If you are undocumented, read this section.) A few starting points that may help:
Getting help with applying for jobs: If you have a degree or other credentials from another country, you don’t necessarily have to start over and re-earn them in the United States. The exception is for professional licenses or state certifications — you can read more about that in the section below. If you’re having difficulty landing a job that matches your skills and experience, sometimes that’s a matter of having networks, understanding the job market, or knowing the standards of applying to jobs in the United States. Here are resources that may be able to help:
- The public library has many resources for job hunting, including workshops on resume and cover letter writing, help with job interviews, information on industry trends and salaries, and help with finding job listings. Here's a list of online resources from the L.A. Public Library, but you can also visit a branch near you and get in-person help from a librarian.
- Professional associations may be able to help you learn about the local job market for your industry, meet other people in the field, find a mentor, and understand what you’ll need in order to land a job. Do an internet search for an association for your industry in your area, or try this search tool of national associations from CareerOneStop.
- There are several online resources specifically for newly arrived immigrants that have tips on finding employment and education in the United States. Here are two:
- Jobversity is a resource library from nonprofit organization Upwardly Global, which specializes in job coaching for newly arrived immigrants. Jobversity contains videos and written guides on preparing your resume, interviewing, attending career fairs, getting licenses and credentials, and more.
- USAHello is an online resource hub for newly arrived immigrants with information on navigating education, work, immigration, health, and other aspects of life in the United States.
How to get a professional license: If you were in a licensed profession — like physician, dentist, lawyer, or nurse — you will have to apply for a new license that is recognized in California. The process is overseen by different licensing boards, so it will be different for each profession. You’ll usually have to get your education credentials evaluated by an agency, then apply for and pass a licensing exam. Licensing boards for professions like dentist or physician also require additional schooling in the United States through a residency or advanced standing program.
Upwardly Global has a series of guides on licensing and certifications in California for 11 different professions: accountant, architect, dentist, engineer, IT professional, lawyer, nurse, pharmacist, physician, physical therapist, and teacher. These guides walk you through the process of evaluating your credentials, applying for a licensing exam, and what to expect in terms of timing and costs for getting licensed. The organization also offers one-on-one counseling for immigrants who fit certain eligibility requirements and are looking to navigate the U.S. job market.
Applying to higher education: If you’re living in the United States, you will fill out your application as a new or transfer student, not an international student. International student applications are usually for those living in another country who are trying to get a visa specifically to study in the United States.
Four-year colleges may ask you to provide transcripts from your previous secondary or postsecondary schools to determine your eligibility. Some may ask you to get a professional translation service for documents that are not in English. You can ask your previous education institutions for transcripts and other documentation, but if you can’t get a hold of them, ask the admissions office of the school you’re applying to what to do next.
If you’ve already completed some college courses in another country, there are cases in which your credits may transfer to a U.S. college. This largely depends on whether the school you’re applying to accepts foreign credits and what classes you took. Call the school’s admissions office and find out if it will accept foreign credits, along with what the process might be for getting them evaluated for credit transfer. Read more about transferring credits in this section.
Financial aid: If you’re not a U.S. citizen, you can receive federal financial aid if you’re an “eligible noncitizen,” which includes green card holders, conditional permanent residents, refugees, asylees, and those on humanitarian parole. You’ll need to enter your Alien Registration Number when filling out the FAFSA. You can find more details about the financial aid process for eligible noncitizens from the Student Aid Commission website.
English classes and proficiency tests: If you need to strengthen your English language skills, you can take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at an adult education school, community college, or private language school. You can search for classes near you through the state government’s California Immigrant Guide.
Most community colleges offer both credit and non-credit ESL classes. Classes for credit will focus on using English in a college setting, covering grammar, reading, composition, listening, and speaking. If you’re a non-native English speaker, once you’ve enrolled at a community college, you’ll be asked to undergo an assessment to determine your level of English proficiency. That will help place you into the right ESL class level.
Non-credit ESL classes are free and help students with English skills that they may need for work, school, or daily life, with some specialized courses for preparing for high school equivalency exams or the U.S. citizenship test. If you went to secondary school outside the United States, four-year colleges may ask you to prove your English proficiency with a test like the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Check with the school’s admissions office to see what exactly they might require.
Other sources of help:
Many resource centers in Southern California provide counseling, education, and employment assistance to communities of immigrants and refugees. Some include:
- Access California Services, focusing on Arab American and Muslim American communities, with support in 17 different languages
- Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles, with support in English and Spanish
- Korean American Federation of Los Angeles, with support in English and Korean
- Chinatown Service Center, with support in English, Vietnamese, Spanish, and various Chinese dialects, including Mandarin, Cantonese, and Toisanese
- Tiyya supports families of refugees, immigrants, and displaced indigenous communities.
- You can also search for more organizations and services near you with L.A. County’s tool.
The California Immigrant Guide is a collection of resources from the state government on navigating immigration services, education, public benefits and employment in California.
The Refugee Students Scholarship Program is a newly established, student-led scholarship for refugees and asylees attending Cal State or University of California schools.
If you have a disability
You have a legal right to accommodations in higher education, whether you have a physical, learning, psychological, or any other disability covered by the American Disabilities Act. A few things to know, before and after you enroll:
Understand your rights. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, you can’t be denied admission to higher education because of your disability and you’re legally entitled to reasonable accommodations in any school that receives federal funding. But here’s the catch: schools can get out of providing accommodations if the cost would be excessive, or if the school would have to fundamentally change the nature of the program in order to comply. The disability rights nonprofit organization Understood has more details about rights and accommodations in this overview.
The disability resources office at your school of choice is your main point of contact. It may go by different names — ”Disabled Students Programs and Services” or “Student Accessibility Services” at community colleges, and “Center for Accessible Education” at UCLA, for example. This will be the main channel for getting the accommodations you need in school, or getting information about accessibility before you apply.
If you had an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or 504 Plan in high school, higher education institutions have no legal obligation to follow them. Instead, you’ll have to communicate your needs to the school’s disability resources office, then it will provide accommodations for you. If a school doesn’t have a disability resources office, ask an admissions or outreach officer for the right person to contact.
Find out what accommodations schools have provided in the past. Many schools will give prospective students a general idea of the kinds of accommodations offered, whether it’s for classes, housing, or transportation. You can start with a search tool like BigFuture by the College Board, which allows you to filter for schools that have services or programs for students with disabilities that go beyond what is legally required. School websites may also have a general list of accommodations, services, and people to contact for more information. Here are overviews from the University of California system, Cal State schools, and California community colleges.
Before you’re enrolled, schools may not be able to give you a complete list of accommodations available — they can’t promise to provide something unless you’re an enrolled student officially asking for it. So if you’re looking for information about an accommodation that isn’t mentioned on the website, one thing you can do is ask the disability resources office what accommodations the school has provided in the past, especially for those with similar disabilities as you.
The range of accommodations available will be different at each school, but common ones you can ask about include getting priority registration, accessible parking, access to voice-to-text software, use of calculators or laptops during tests, and permission to record class sessions.
Get a sense of whether you’ll have a supportive environment. Just because a school is legally required to provide accommodations doesn’t always mean it is well-equipped to support students with disabilities. If you tour the school or have conversations with the disability resources office, try to scope out what kind of environment it would provide. Is the disability resources office championed within the school? Is it integrated into other student services, or is it isolated? Are staff eager to help you and answer your questions, or do you have to work to get someone’s attention? Are tutoring services readily available, or would you have to pay an outside service for help?
Hearing from other students’ experiences will be valuable, too. Ask the disability resources office to connect you with students with disabilities similar to yours. You can also try to get in touch with relevant student groups to ask them your questions.
Once you’re enrolled, register with the disability resources office to arrange accommodations. You don’t have to disclose your disability when applying and schools aren't legally allowed to ask you about it, so the only way for a school to be aware of your needs is if you register with the disability resources office. Call the office or search the school's website to find out how to register for accommodations, and the kind of documentation you might need.
Talk to instructors about your accommodation needs. If you register a disability with the school, they’ll usually notify your instructors about what you need. But it often helps to connect directly with instructors before classes begin to make sure they’re aware and that you’ll have your accommodations taken care of on your first day.
If an instructor refuses to grant you accommodations, bring it up with the disability resources office and any other advocates you have at the school — whether that’s a supportive professor or student advocacy group — and see what your remedy options are.
If you are LGBTQ+
Many schools in California have resources to support you getting to and through higher education. Here’s a quick overview:
Legal rights: Federal and state law prohibit colleges and universities from discriminating against students based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This means students can’t be denied admission, financial aid, employment, access to academic programs, or housing for identifying as LGBTQ+. It also means transgender students have the right to housing, restrooms, and locker rooms in accordance with their gender identity.
These laws apply to all public schools and non-religious private schools that receive federal or state funding. However, religious schools can apply for an exemption to the rules, which has been a particular sticking point for LGBTQ+ students at some Christian universities. Here’s a list of schools in California that have requested exemptions. Nonprofit group Campus Pride also has a list of schools nationwide that have filed for exemptions.
You can find more details about legal rights for LGBTQ+ students in California at the ACLU of Southern California. Legal organization Lambda Legal also has information specifically for transgender students in higher education.
Campus Pride Index: This website gives you an overview of schools’ LGBTQ+-inclusive policies and programs and gives them a rating out of five stars. Each school has an LGBTQ-Friendly Report Card that checks if schools do certain things like letting students change their identity on school records, extend health coverage to same-sex partners, have resource centers on campus for LGBTQ+ students, and more. One note: Schools must opt in to be included in the index, so not all schools will appear in the database or have a rating. Campus Pride also has a Trans Policy Clearinghouse where you can view schools’ specific policies for transgender students.
Scholarships and grants: Many organizations offer scholarships or grants for LGBTQ+ students. A school’s financial aid department is the best place to start searching for these opportunities, but here are some other sources to start:
- The Point Foundation offers scholarships to LGBTQ+ students around the country. There’s no age or citizenship requirement for applicants, but students must be enrolled in school full time; trade schools and online-only schools are not eligible. There’s also a separate scholarship specifically for community college students, where scholars get to spend time at a transfer symposium learning the ins and outs of transferring to a four-year college.
- The Latino Equity Alliance offers scholarships every spring that range from $1,000-$5,000 for current and incoming college students who identify as LGBTQ+. Vocational schools are eligible. There is no citizenship requirement.
- The Prism Foundation offers scholarships ranging from $1,000 - $5,000 to students who are working to make a positive impact on the LGBTQ+ and Asian and Pacific Islander communities. The scholarship applies to four-year colleges, community colleges, and trade and vocational schools, and there is no citizenship requirement.
Resource centers: Public universities in California all have dedicated LGBTQ+ resource centers. Here are links to each of the centers in the California State University system, the California Community Colleges system, and the Southern California-based UCs: UC Riverside, UC Irvine, UCLA, and UC Santa Barbara.
Outside of schools, the L.A. LGBT Center also offers educational services. It helps students get their GED, offers access to counseling and tutoring, assists with college tours, and provides scholarships through partners.