Serving the Undocumented: California Community Colleges Struggle to Navigate "Frustrating" Financial Aid Process for Undocumented Students

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Imagine a high school senior in California who has maintained an A average all through grade school. She has numerous extra-curricular activities on her record. She dreams of attending the University of California-Berkeley. She applies and is accepted. However, when applying for federal financial aid, she finds out she doesn't qualify. When she applies for state aid, she's told no once again. Though she's eligible for in-state tuition, her working-class parents don't have the $22,000 it will take to pay for a year at Berkeley. Dejected and frustrated, she wonders if she'll be able to get any job that could make use of her abundant talents, now that college seems out of reach.

Such is the plight of an undocumented student like the keynote speaker at a recent Community College League of California fund-raising dinner who was eligible to receive only private scholarships that "weren't enough to support a very expensive education," said CCLC CEO Scott Lay.

"She looked back at the community college, and we're proud of that. We're excited that we're the only opportunity for students like that, but that's not acceptable. If a student is prepared to go to a flagship institution and become an economic engine for the state of California, we need to find ways to support that," Lay added.

Mt. San Antonio College speech professor and California Community College Academic Senate Executive Committee member Phillip Maynard says he's had many undocumented students in his office who have told him their stories. He says some of these students, with help from benefactors in the community and elsewhere, "first started at Mt. SAC as a freshman, got into our honors program and went right on into UCLA.

"We are the largest community college system in the country. And we know that we have many undocumented students--that is the reality. And I think at times, we don't look at the reality close enough," Maynard adds.

Dr. Gerardo E. de los Santos, CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College, calls "serving the undocumented" one of the major challenges community colleges are facing, as community colleges have become the only affordable option for many undocumented students having to come up with the cash themselves to pay tuition.

Nevertheless, numerous pieces of legislation, both for and against financial aid for undocumented students in states like California, are confusing for undocumented students who've grown up here, matriculated through the public school system and now look to continue their education at community colleges.

"What is the coin of the realm here is financial support for these students to be able to enter into the gateway of higher education through community colleges. That is one of the biggest barriers," says de los Santos.

The Only Affordable Option

Earlier this year, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the latest version of the California Dream Act, which would allow undocumented students to be eligible for certain types of financial aid such as community college fee waivers. In his veto statement, the Republican governor said, "it would not be prudent to place additional strain" on state resources to provide financial aid to students "without lawful immigration status."

Although undocumented students wouldn't qualify for financial aid, Schwarzenegger points out that "under existing law, undocumented students who meet the required criteria already qualify for the lower in-state tuition rate while attending California public colleges and universities." De los Santos says the plight of undocumented California students mirrors what is happening in other states across the nation, in that they are coping with a hodge-podge of laws both for and against granting them financial aid.

"These types of policies are chopped up and are confusing and are contradictory. The governor of California vetoed the Dream Act. …