COVER STORY: Reviving The Dream
States, Philanthropists Step In To Help Undocumented Students
AP Photo/Valerie Fernandez
C O V E R S T O R Y
Reviving The Dream
States and Philanthropists Step In To Help Undocumented Students
By Paul Bradley
Just more than three years ago, it seemed like the dream of a college education for large numbers of undocumented students had died a slow and painful death.
But while 55 senators voted in favor of the DREAM Act, it wasn’t enough to end a Republican-led filibuster, choking off a debate that began in 2001 when the legislation first was introduced.
With Washington unable to act, undocumented students, even those who had lived nearly all their lives in the United States and excelled in high school, entered a kind of educational limbo. They were American in nearly every way, their birthplaces little more than a distant memory. But the American dream of a college degree and a better life were out of reach.
Each year, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from the nation’s high schools. But getting to college is an uphill climb, too expensive for most immigrant families to afford.
Undocumented students generally aren’t barred from enrolling in college, but in most places they must pay out-of-state tuition which can be three times the in-state rate. They don’t qualify for Title IV federal student aid or most scholarship programs. Without such aid, their prospects of going to college are dim.
But now states and philanthropic groups are stepping into the void created by Congress. They are expanding educational opportunities for the so-called Dreamers by placing a college education within their financial reach.
Last month, for instance, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, signed a bill that allows undocumented students to qualify for state-sponsored scholarships, joining California, Texas and New Mexico in approving similar legislation. The measure passed by large bipartisan majorities in both the Washington House and Senate. State lawmakers had approved in-state tuition rates for undocumented students a decade ago.
“What’s important is what it will do for thousands of bright and talented and very hard-working students across the state of Washington,” Inslee said during a festive signing ceremony, according to the Associated Press. “Today, we’re allowing dreams to come true.”
Earlier in the month, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, signed into a law a bill that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at the state’s colleges and universities. Christie said it made economic sense to extend the in-state tuition benefit to students on whom the state already spends millions in public education dollars.
“An investment made should be an investment maximized,” he said.
At least 17 other states have approved similar laws, and several others, including New York, are considering them this legislative year. Proponents say that instead of waiting for Congress to act, states can help undocumented students earn a college degree.
Among the states considering allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition is Florida, home to large numbers of immigrant students. As in other states, the bill would extend the benefit to students who attended at least three years of high school and applied to college within two years of graduation, regardless of their immigration status.
By no means are all states embracing reform for undocumented students, however. In Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona, proposals to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students have failed to gain traction. In Arizona, in fact, Attorney General Tom Horne has sued Maricopa Community College and Pima Community College to stop them from offering in-state tuition to some undocumented students. The step has touched off angry demonstrations outside Horne’s Phoenix office.
Other states, including Alabama, Indiana and South Carolina, prohibit undocumented students from even enrolling in college.
Should the Florida measure become law, the measure would make a significant difference for undocumented students there. In-state tuition At Florida State College at Jacksonville, for example, in-state tuition is $2,790 a year, while out-of-state students pay $9,903.
Still, in-state tuition measures only go so far. Undocumented students remain ineligible for the billions of dollars in Title IV aid, including Pell grants.
Former Washington Post owner Donald Graham had that reality in mind when he co-founded TheDream.US, a new initiative which plans to hand out college scholarships to 2,000 undocumented students over the next decade. Graham and co-founders Carlos Guttierez, commerce secretary under President George W. Bush, and philanthropist Henry Munoz III, finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, have raised $25 million for college scholarships for undocumented students. Among supporters are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Fernandez Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Under TheDream.US, talented students would have tuition, fees and books paid for with scholarships up to a maximum of $25,000.
“All of us want to help set something right that is greatly wrong,” Graham said at a press conference announcing the initiative.
To qualify, students must be a first-time college student enrolled in one of the 12 colleges partnering with TheDream.US; have graduated high school with at least a 2.5 cumulative GPA; be participating in the “deferred action” program, created in 2012, which allows undocumented students to gain temporary resident status without fear of deportation; demonstrate financial need; and show a strong desire to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree in non-liberal arts fields such as teaching, nursing or accounting.
Long Beach City College, where 48 percent of students are of Hispanic origin and 64 percent of first-time students qualify for Pell grants, is among the schools participating in the initiative.
“TheDream.US scholarship program brings new possibilities to immigrant students often faced with tremendous obstacles in achieving their academic goals,” said college President Eloy Ortiz Oakley. “Assisting these students to achieve their academic goals is good for our community and our economy, as once they obtain a college credential, their families are more likely to contribute to the economy in positive ways.”
TheDream.US has already handed out the inaugural 39 scholarships, and 22 of them went to students attending Miami Dade College.
College President Eduardo J. Padrón, who was born in Cuba and emigrated to the U.S. at age 16, recently met with the students and their advisors as the students ceremoniously signed their scholarship commitment forms.
“The Dream movement began at Miami Dade College when a group of undocumented students walked to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness and state their case before Congress,” Padrón said. “These students, the Dreamers, are among the finest we have ever served: hard-working, dedicated and motivated. They deserve every opportunity to make the American Dream their own reality.”
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