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Financial aid for undocumented students is losing its stigma

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For years, it was information shared only in whispers. An immigrant student, bright and educated but in the country illegally, wanted to go to college, and a precious few universities were willing, very quietly, to help them pay for it.

But as ferocious battles rage in Congress, statehouses and courtrooms over the legal status of unauthorized immigrants, an evolution has been underway at some colleges and universities. They are taking it upon themselves to more freely, sometimes openly, make college more affordable for these students, for whom all federal and most state forms of financial aid remain off-limits.

In recent years — and especially since 2012, when the Obama administration enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an executive action that said unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States as children could stay here for a period of time and legally work — leaders of these colleges appear increasingly comfortable treating those students the same as they do citizens or legal residents.

"It’s been talked about more, and more openly, because of the existence of a legal status, DACA," said Daniel R. Porterfield, president of Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, which recently started offering more financial aid to young immigrants. "It now gives those students the legal right to be more out of the shadows than they had been when they were simply undocumented."

To make higher education affordable to undocumented students, colleges must often provide substantial assistance, because the deferred-action program does not make these students eligible for federal tuition aid, like Pell grants, a crucial resource for low-income applicants.

A few states, including California and Texas, have made students brought to the U.S. illegally eligible for state financial aid programs. In New York, the new speaker of the Assembly, Carl E. Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, wants the state to do likewise, but Senate Republicans defeated such a bill last year.

More than a dozen states, including New York, New Jersey, Texas and California, allow DACA students who attended in-state high schools to pay the same price at public colleges as legal residents of the state, which is usually cheaper than tuition for out-of-state students.

There is no official count of colleges that have a policy of offering financial aid to students brought in illegally as children, though admissions experts say the number of colleges, and students who benefit, remains small.

Many colleges willingly admit such students or those covered by the deferred-action program, but still classify them as international students, who usually receive little financial aid.

Franklin and Marshall, on the other hand, considers students brought in illegally as children eligible for the same aid as any U.S. citizen. And in the fall, in partnership with a private foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, it will offer additional grants to DACA students to pay what federal aid would cover for a citizen. The college’s officials say that will allow them to enroll more of those students.

Last fall, New York University announced a pilot program to give such students from New York state grants the same way it awards them to citizens. Before this, students brought in illegally as children received help from the university occasionally, on a case-by-case basis.

Jonathan Avila, who was born in the Dominican Republic and is covered by the deferred-action program, applied to 37 colleges last year, and not because he was worried about getting into one.

"I was under the impression that I was on the same level as everybody else I was going to high school with," said Avila, who was raised in Upper Manhattan. But when it came to financial aid, he said, "turns out I was going to have a much harder time."

Avila is now a freshman at NYU, where he receives a full ride, not including room and board.

NYU has a financial aid form tailored to DACA applicants, but many universities do not. When there is no special form, students may be encouraged by college counselors to leave certain fields blank on their applications, like those for a Social Security number, and to call the admissions office to discuss their situation.

The open-wallet attitudes have drawn some criticism, mirroring the debate over immigration in general.

Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that supports tough enforcement measures, said there is only so much money to go around for financial aid, and there are plenty of citizens who cannot afford to go to college.

"There is a certain zero-sum aspect to it," Camarota said. "The fact is, there is not an unlimited pot of money to help needy students, or high-achieving low-income students, and there is a certain one-for-one, a crowding-out effect."

Eric Ruiz, associate director of undergraduate admissions at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill., said that during a staff town hall meeting last summer, one or two people stood up and walked out while a panel of students brought in illegally as children were speaking about their experiences. Apparently the staff members objected to the university’s policies of admitting the students and offering them aid, Ruiz said.

When he arrived at St. Francis about six years ago, he knew of one such student. This year, he said, there are 38.

MJ Knoll-Finn, vice president for enrollment management at NYU, said the university’s financial aid budget was being expanded to accommodate the deferred action students. "This is not taking away from anybody," she said. "This is a formalized way of making sure these students know they’re welcome."

Other colleges that offer aid to students brought to the U.S. illegally do not dispute that the money is coming from the same financial aid pot. But they say that setting priorities and making choices is just the nature of admissions, and that the perspective and diversity such students offer is valuable.

"There is no doubt that students who have gone to school in America and lived here since a young age are part of the fabric of our society, and part of our educational system," said Miriam Feldblum, dean of students at Pomona College in California and a professor of immigration policy and politics. "We’re looking for a student body that’s reflective of the United States."

For students in the deferred action program applying to college, the process still requires persistence and stamina. A high school counselor in Illinois said she could call one university three times and get three different answers about the application process for such a student.

For Avila, the NYU freshman, applying to 37 colleges — which he did with the help of a college-counseling program called the Options Center at the Goddard Riverside Community Center in Upper Manhattan — was just the beginning. After receiving acceptance packages, he called the colleges he wanted to attend to ask whether they could offer more financial assistance.

And for many students, even those covered by the deferred-action program and who have strong academic records, getting enough financial aid to attend a four-year college remains a struggle.

Maria Gonzalez was born in Mexico and raised in Brooklyn from age 4. She now attends a community college because she could not afford a four-year university.

"In high school, I took AP and honors classes; I was in the National Honor Society," she said. "It’s difficult knowing that you’ve worked hard and you deserve to go to college. You want to go, but the money is holding you back."

Gonzalez is in the process of applying to four-year colleges now.

Elizabeth A. Harris, New York Times

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