Financial aid barriers limit college access for undocumented youth

Lisseth Perez did not graduate at the top of her class from Chicago’s Hancock College Prep in 2015, but she worked hard to earn As and Bs. The grades, combined with an average ACT score, were good enough to get her into a half-dozen universities. But Perez had to turn down all those acceptances.

Even with scholarships, she and her parents couldn’t afford to pay for her education, let alone for room and board if she wanted to study outside of Chicago. And unlike most low-income students, Perez can’t access federal or state financial aid or loans because she is undocumented.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal until I started getting my acceptance letters and scholarship letters, and I was getting excited because I thought [they were offering] a lot of money,” says Perez, who was born in Mexico and brought to the U.S. illegally when she was an infant. “But when you look at the bigger picture, at all of the tuition, fees and dorms, it wasn’t really anything. I was still going to have to pay $30,000, $40,000. And that’s about how much my parents make in a year.”

Still, Perez was able to do what many of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from the nation’s high schools each year couldn’t do: She enrolled in college after accepting a last-minute spot in the inaugural class of Arrupe College, Loyola University’s two-year program for low-income students. She’s now a sophomore.

After this year, however, conflicting federal policies make her path an uncertain one. Under a temporary program created by President Obama, Perez can work legally without fear of deportation. But the program doesn’t offer a path to permanent legal status in this country. And while she had the right to a public K-12 education, other policies bar her from college financial aid.

Even if she completes a four-year degree, there’s no guarantee she will be allowed to work or stay in the country — another dilemma for undocumented youth who may want to pursue a college education.

Over the past decade and a half, Illinois lawmakers have tried to address the federal gaps and make college more accessible by allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public universities and establishing the privately funded Illinois Dream Fund.

Advocates estimate that just 1,500 of the more than 143,000 undergraduate students enrolled in the state’s public universities are undocumented. Data compiled by The Chicago Reporter through public records requests and interviews suggests the numbers could be even lower — with only 700 to 800 students filing the paperwork that’s required to obtain in-state tuition and actually enrolling last fall.

Unlike Illinois, a half-dozen other states allow undocumented students to tap into public financial aid. Access to state grants doesn’t solve the larger issues of affordability or permanent legal status, but supporters say it is an important step for students like Perez.

“If Oklahoma and Texas can do it, I don’t see why Illinois can’t do it,” says Tanya Broder, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. “Illinois could really help fulfill the promise of its Dream Fund and step in and support these students.”

Protected from society’s limits, until adolescence

Growing up in the Midway neighborhood on the Far Southwest Side of Chicago, Perez heard the story of how she was carried across the border in the arms of a smuggler and knew she was undocumented. Her mother would remind her to be cautious in public to avoid triggering an interaction with authorities.

But her experience of being undocumented was distinct from that of her parents.  In his book, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America, Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, describes how undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children are mostly protected from the societal limitations and rules that distinguish “legal” from “illegal” between the time they’re in kindergarten until they graduate from high school.

Their transition into “illegality” often begins at a key stage in their adolescence: when they’re applying for jobs, a driver’s license or college.

For Perez, the protective cocoon began to crack during her senior year in high school when she learned that she couldn’t apply for college financial aid. She watched her peers talk about putting down deposits for four-year universities. “I felt like I had tried harder than them, but they were able to go where they wanted to go,” she says. “And I wasn’t.”

Between 10 and 15 percent of each year’s graduating class at Hancock is undocumented — numbers that make the issue “front and center in our lives,” says Principal Karen Boran. Districtwide just over 4 percent of high school students are likely undocumented, according to an analysis of Census data from the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.

Undocumented students at Hancock and many other Chicago high schools are “out” publicly about their immigration status, a growing trend that stems from student activism here and across the country. Photo from Hancock's graduation day in 2016.

Photo by Max Herman

Undocumented students at Hancock and many other Chicago high schools are “out” publicly about their immigration status, a growing trend that stems from student activism here and across the country. Photo from Hancock’s graduation day in 2016.

Like many high schools with large numbers of undocumented students, Hancock offers sessions for parents and students on how to finance a higher education. But there are still information gaps. Perez, for example, didn’t know she qualified for in-state tuition at Illinois public universities. She thought she had to pay the more expensive international rate.

She applied to every outside scholarship she could find that was open to undocumented students and won just one for $1,000 from her high school. Perez tried saving money from her part-time, $10-per-hour job making sandwiches. But most of her earnings would go toward clothes, school supplies, her phone bill and to help with her family’s household costs. That’s in addition to nearly $1,000 she spends every two years in fees and payments to a lawyer to file her application and renewals for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the federal program that provides temporary relief from deportation and a work permit.

Her father, who works in construction hanging drywall, and her mother, a dishwasher at a neighborhood restaurant, talked about getting second jobs and borrowing money from relatives to help pay for college. But Perez felt guilty. She has two younger siblings to consider.

Tanya Cabrera, who chairs the Illinois Dream Fund as a volunteer, notes a common thread in the application essays for the scholarship program, which distributes about $100,000 each year and receives more than 1,400 applications. Nearly four out of every five applicants mentioned stress and depression.

“It’s a daily hustle for them,” says Cabrera, who works with undocumented students at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s, ‘How am I going to afford this? I’m going to have to find another job. I can’t put the strain on my family.’”

Without federal aid, state efforts fall short

Last fall Illinois lawmakers considered a bill that would give undocumented students access to the state’s need-based Monetary Award Program (known as the MAP grant), as well as clarify their eligibility for institutional grants and scholarships from public universities. The bill had the support of every public university in the state.

The timing was awful, coming during the worst crisis in higher education funding in Illinois history. Lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner couldn’t agree on passing a budget for nearly the entire fiscal year, a delay that devastated public colleges and universities.

Legislators from both sides of the aisle worried about giving money to undocumented students at the expense of their own low-income constituencies.

“It’s a higher education challenge,” says Sen. Iris Martinez, a Democrat who sponsored the bill. “No doubt with universities not receiving their full amounts from the state, it’s a hard dilemma I think for everyone.”

A pared-down version of the bill, that no longer included access to the MAP grant, passed the state Senate.  Martinez and some of her allies in the House want to push that bill again this year. The legislation would allow public universities to make institutional grants and scholarships available to undocumented students, something that several institutions are wary of doing without explicit approval from the state.

Chicago’s Northeastern Illinois University already does. After a campaign by student activists a few years ago, administrators began allowing undocumented students to apply for nearly every institutional or department scholarship that’s funded privately or with tuition dollars. The only grants that are off limits are those that require recipients to be U.S. citizens. This may help explain why there are more undocumented students at Northeastern than any other public university in the state.

“The institution has made a decision that undocumented students are not going to be left behind if they meet the criteria,” says Daniel Lopez, vice president of student affairs. “We’re really not apologetic about serving students, especially these students, because we know they need the support.”

But even in states that have opened public grants and institutional aid, undocumented students continue to face barriers that only changes in federal policy could address.

Last year, for example, nearly 5,000 undocumented students in California received a state grant that covers tuition costs and fees at public universities and colleges, but not room and board. Thousands more students qualified for the grants but didn’t take the money. In many cases involving community colleges, students said they didn’t know the grants were available.

At public four-year universities, where the money was automatically placed into students’ accounts, many grants went unused. Students later said that once they took housing costs into account — especially in expensive cities like Berkeley — they realized the state grants wouldn’t be enough.

“We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to do,” says Lupita Cortez Alcala, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, “but it’s important to keep in mind they’re still not eligible for federal grants or loans.”

DACA hasn’t boosted college enrollment

In the spring of her senior year in high school, Perez begged admissions officers at various universities for more financial support, but to no avail. So she resigned herself to attending a community college, the path taken by the majority of undocumented students who attend college.

Unable to afford a four-year college without federal or state financial aid, Lisseth Perez is now in Arrupe College, a two-year program for low-income students that’s part of Loyola University.

Photo by Lauren Harris

Unable to afford a four-year college without federal or state financial aid, Lisseth Perez is now in Arrupe College, a two-year program for low-income students that’s part of Loyola University.

Then on prom night, she got a call from an admissions officer at Arrupe College. (Advocates estimate that several hundred undocumented students in Illinois are enrolled in private colleges, which have more leeway in allocating institutional aid, though there is no reliable data on this trend.)

If Perez could pay about $1,000 in tuition and fees, she had a spot. Her high school scholarship covered the costs for the first year. Accepting the Arrupe offer was bittersweet for Perez: Loyola was her dream school, and she’d been accepted. She just couldn’t afford it.

This year she’s working 30 hours or more per week, while taking a full course load, so she can save up for tuition and one day transfer to a four-year university. For the moment, she’s able to work legally in the United States because of DACA.

Gonzales, the researcher at Harvard, says the federal program has been a “huge boon” for young undocumented immigrants and their families.

“If we measure short-term progress, I think that for those 728,000 young people and their families who have DACA, it’s certainly materialized into a giant step forward,” he says. “A lot of these young people have new jobs, they’re increasing their earnings, they’re starting to build credit through bank accounts and credit cards.”

Many of DACA’s proponents thought it would also lead to an increase in the number of undocumented immigrants in college because they could now work legally in the U.S. and save money to pay for tuition.

But a recent paper in the Journal of Population Economics found the opposite: Significantly fewer young undocumented immigrants are in higher education than before DACA — many are working instead.

A lot of Perez’s friends dropped out of college to work to help support their families.

Quitting is not in her plans.  After getting her bachelor’s degree, Perez would like to go to law school and become an attorney for poor immigrant families like her own.

But she knows that without permanent legal status in this country, she may face the possibility of being stuck, degree in hand, in a low-wage job. It’s a thought that consumes her sometimes.

“I’m scared that I’ll have an education, but I won’t be able to get a job,” she says. “That I’ll work at Potbelly’s for my whole life.”