Why Are Undocumented Students Leaving In-State Tuition and Financial Aid Unclaimed?

Posted By Monica Harvin on February 24, 2016 at 11:30 am
Why Are Undocumented Students Leaving In-State Tuition and Financial Aid Unclaimed?

Only 67 percent of the grants awarded last year to undocumented students in California were used, Lupita Cortez Alcala, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, revealed in a recent interview with EdSource. “We are working with higher education institutions and students to find out why that is and how to ensure that the students who are awarded the grants enroll and take advantage of them. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal loans or Pell grants. So it may be that (even with California Dream Act grants) they don’t have enough to cover their college costs and living expenses.”

But, are additional educational costs and living expenses the only things holding undocumented students back from going to college in states where they have access to in-state tuition and, in some cases, even financial aid?

Finding ways to pay for expenses not covered by financial aid

“The high cost of tuition continues to be the biggest obstacle we see affecting the enrollment of undocumented and DACAmented students,” says Ignacia Rodriguez, executive action legal fellow at the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) in Los Angeles, California. “Students also have to worry about the cost of living on or near campus or commuting to and from school (gas, public transportation fare), food, books. We continue to see some students taking time off from school (sometimes semester(s) and year(s)) in order to raise these necessary funds.”

The overall financial burden of going to college, being undocumented, low-income and first generation, is certainly one explanation for why these students are not taking advantage of college funding opportunities like California Dream Act grants.

Recently launched, the California Dream Loan program is one response to address this reality, which now allows undocumented students access to student loans to cover education and living expenses not covered by other financial aid. For undocumented students in California, the deadline to apply for financial aid, which now includes both California Dream Act grants and loans, is March 2, 2016.

Being denied in-state tuition by schools, despite in-state tuition laws

However, there are other reasons that could also be contributing to undocumented students not accessing funding that is available to them. Rodriguez says, “In states that have passed tuition equity measures, regardless of students’ immigration status or… specifically for DACAmented students, we’ve noticed that often there is confusion among administrators and staff on how to implement these new laws and policies. Students sometimes have to seek support from organizations outside of their campus to help them access what is available on their campus.”

“For example, a student will contact NILC or organizations like Educators for Fair Consideration because they were denied in-state tuition, despite a law in their state granting them in-state tuition… They come to us to get the information to bring back to the administrator or staff person on their campus who told them they didn’t qualify,” says Rodriguez. Without this kind of help, many undocumented students continue to be mislabeled as international students at schools where college administration and staff are uninformed about how to apply state legislation.

High school is another place where undocumented students receive misinformation from guidance counselors, teachers, and other school staff, who are also unaware of the actual opportunities available for undocumented students to pursue higher education. Based on her own personal experience of being misinformed about how to go to college as an undocumented student in California, Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca has made it her mission to inform undocumented students of opportunities that are out there for them and has created Dreamers Roadmap, a mobile app to help these students find money for college.

Looking outside of California, a recent report by the Florida College Access Network on the use of in-state tuition waivers by undocumented students in Florida showed that nine public universities and colleges did not enroll undocumented students at an in-state tuition rate during the 2014-2015 school year. This number included many of the state’s largest community colleges like Sante Fe College, Tallahassee Community College, and State College of Florida. This finding seems highly unusual, given that these schools represent much more affordable options for low-income, undocumented students. In the report, the researchers recommend increasing education for school staff, both at the college and high school levels, to reduce confusion over access to higher education for undocumented students.

Dealing with the stresses of being undocumented in the university

For those students, undocumented or with DACA, who do make it to college, day-to-day life as a university student holds many additional challenges. Rodriguez explains, “It’s difficult for undocumented students and DACAmented students to feel like they are students just like everyone else on campus. Situations can arise which remind them of how their immigration status impacts their lives.” For example, she says:

  • “A discussion on immigration can arise in the classroom, which could make the student feel uncomfortable if anti-immigrant views are expressed by the professor or any of their classmates.
  • There could be a job and career fair which undocumented students may not be able to benefit from because the information is for those who have work authorization and social security numbers. DACAmented students may find that the employer only hires U.S. citizens. Federal government jobs, for example, generally require citizenship.
  • There could be an information session on study abroad programs. Undocumented students cannot study abroad. Students with DACA may be able to study abroad but only if they first receive advance parole, which is a separate process they have to apply for through USCIS, and they have to hope their advance parole application gets approved in time to actually participate in the study abroad program.
  • It’s difficult for undocumented and DACAmented students to find supportive staff and administrators on campus. Students report being sent from office to office because the staff and administrators they speak to seeking help don’t understand what being undocumented is or what DACA is. For example, an undocumented student reported being questioned as to why she didn’t have a social security number, which made her feel awful.
  • There can be announcements and information on financial aid opportunities, including scholarships, which are not open to undocumented and/or DACAmented students, due to their immigration status.”

What’s more, she says, “The toll of having to go through this experience [of being undocumented] on the students’ well-being is not often discussed. Sacrifices are made to achieve an education. It’s hard to be able to only focus on your studies. Many students have to worry about how they’re going to afford the next semester. Some students have even had parents deported while they were in school. The fear that they may be deported themselves adds to the stress they already experience in school.”

It’s normal for college students to worry about what’s going to happen after graduation, but Rodriguez points out that for undocumented students that this is even more stressful. “Even those with DACA and with work authorization… worry what will happen if DACA is no longer available, will they ever become legal permanent residents?” In the political and legal context of the day, these added worries about the future are not unfounded.

Undocumented students in states that have passed in-state tuition laws and/or opened up financial aid are certainly in a much better situation than students in places like Georgia, South Carolina, and other states that deny in-state tuition and even bar undocumented students from attending some schools. But, the significant amount of undocumented students missing out on existing opportunities for higher education points to the fact that there is much work to be done in all states to ensure that rights guaranteed by state and federal legislation are being passed on to the students they are meant to help.

Monica Harvin
Monica is a GoodCall contributing editor, covering personal finance and education. She's also GoodCall's diversity expert, with a master's degree in Latin American studies from UCLA and bachelor's degree in history from the University of Florida.

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