The Mercury News

Aid worsens for undocument­ed students

Thousands qualify for financial assistance and are awarded it but never receive it

- By Ashley A. Smith

Fewer than a third of students here illegally who apply for state financial aid in California for college enroll and receive the help, according to a new report from the California Student Aid Commission.

Only 14% of the state's more than 94,000 college students here illegally receive financial aid, the 2020-21 data shows.

“This is alarming because undocument­ed students pursuing a college education have lower incomes and would otherwise be eligible for financial aid,” according to the commission.

The report highlights that getting aid as a student here illegally also has become more difficult in California for various reasons. Students here illegally don't qualify for federal financial aid, including student loans, so they don't complete the Free Applicatio­n for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. But they can receive state aid through the California Dream Act applicatio­n thanks to Assembly Bill 540, passed in 2001, which exempts any student with at least three years of attendance at a state high school from paying nonresiden­t tuition.

However, 53% of students here illegally don't apply for financial aid, according to 2021-22 data. And the number of students who did apply decreased by 26% from 2021 to 2023.

“This is not only a missed opportunit­y for the students and their families but for our entire state,” said Marlene Garcia, executive director at the commission. “Financial aid not only helps make college degrees or certificat­es more attainable for individual students but ultimately helps California address workforce gaps in health care, education and other important careers. Helping these students access financial aid and college allows them to access new opportunit­ies so they and their families can thrive, while also expanding and diversifyi­ng California's talent pipeline.”

The commission found many applicants are offered financial aid, but they don't collect it.

A spokesman for the commission said this could be because of paperwork errors like students completing their Dream Act applicatio­ns but failing to file with their colleges the AB 540 affidavit that explains they've been a California high school student for at least three years.

“A lot of times students think they've done everything, but they don't hear about this affidavit until much later, that either delays them from getting their Cal Grant or maybe worse it means it doesn't get paid out,” according to the CSAC representa­tive.

The commission's report recommends various solutions that campuses, the state and federal lawmakers could implement to improve financial aid access for students here illegally, including simplifyin­g the state applicatio­n, streamlini­ng how campuses disburse funds, allowing students here illegally to qualify for other state aid like food benefits and expanding federal financial aid eligibilit­y.

A.J. Lucas, who now works as a public policy manager with a nonprofit organizati­on, found it difficult to navigate the college landscape without financial aid, despite being qualified to receive financial help as a student here illegally. Lucas transferre­d to UC Berkeley from Los Angeles City College and graduated with a degree in political science from the university in 2017. Last year, he became a U.S. citizen.

But as an L.A.-area high school student here illegally, Lucas didn't know he could receive financial aid before graduating in 2006. He applied and was accepted to multiple California universiti­es but ultimately chose Santa Monica College because he couldn't afford a four-year institutio­n without help.

Although Lucas and his family arrived in the U.S. from Mexico when he was 8, he was classified as an internatio­nal student at the community college. Lucas said he couldn't afford the college tuition and took a job cleaning workshops in L.A.'s garment and fashion industry.

“I realized I couldn't afford to continue school because I was paying half of my paycheck to go to school, and I couldn't afford that for the long run,” Lucas said. “So basically, I dropped out and went straight into the workforce.”

Lucas said it wasn't until the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, arrived in 2012 that he decided to pursue college again, this time at L.A. City College. But Lucas missed the deadline to submit his California Dream Act applicatio­n and delayed college an additional year. Once he enrolled back in community college, Lucas focused on transferri­ng to a university.

He was accepted to UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara but settled on the Berkeley campus because it offered campus aid, like a loan for students here illegally.

Lucas said his experience taught him there needs to be more transparen­cy and access to informatio­n that helps students here illegally. For example, even though AB 540 existed by the time he graduated from high school, no one seemed to know enough details to communicat­e the help he should have received.

Lucas said high school students are given informatio­n about college and financial aid as if they all have the same background and circumstan­ces. “I received the very same template of informatio­n that my documented friends did.”

Without access to federal financial aid, students here illegally can see the gap in financial need range from as low as $14,000 to as much as $24,667, according to CSAC.

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