By Carmen González, CalMatters
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.
When Deysi Mojica received her acceptance to UC Riverside, she was excited. Not only had she overcome her high school’s lack of resources to help undocumented students like herself apply to college, but the university was offering a financial aid package that would make her college dream possible.
“Even though I am undocumented,” said Mojica, now a first-year student, “the amount of money that they gave me was basically covering all my expenses.”
But an unexpected $13,000 charge from the university just before she was due to start classes quickly changed her excitement into confusion, leaving her wondering where the money she was awarded had gone. It was only after repeated calls to the financial aid office, Mojica said, that a helpful student assistant who was also undocumented gave her the information that saved her from dropping out: Her aid package was held up because a signature was missing from one of her application forms.
Like Mojica, many undocumented students lack accurate information about applying for financial aid or find the process intimidating. California has since 2011 allowed undocumented students to receive financial aid from the state and its public universities if they meet certain eligibility requirements. But students, advocates, and even the California Student Aid Commission itself say the aid application developed under a state law known as the California Dream Act is unnecessarily complex, not enough college staff are trained to advise students about it, and campus departments don’t collaborate well when processing applications. As a result, they say, many undocumented students are missing out on aid for which they qualify.
Only 14% of undocumented students in California receive any form of financial aid to pursue higher education, according to a recent California Student Aid Commission report. Of the nearly 45,000 undocumented students who applied for financial aid for this past academic year, fewer than 30% ultimately enrolled in school and received aid.
“What we know is we’ve got a lot of students that are willing and going through the process, but they’re not getting the financial aid support,” said Marlene Garcia, executive director of the student aid commission. “I think that’s a starting point to analyze that there is a problem here.”
One of the problems Garcia cited: Verifying eligibility for the aid can be cumbersome and fear-inducing to undocumented students concerned about the risks of sharing their personal information.
California exempts undocumented students from paying nonresident tuition if they spent three years at, and received a degree, diploma or certificate from a California high school or community college. When those students want to apply for financial aid, they must also submit a document — also known as an AB540 affidavit — to the campus they plan to attend verifying they qualify for the exemption and promising to legalize their immigration status as soon as possible.
The student aid commission then randomly selects 20% of students for verification that the information they reported in their applications is accurate.
But individual campuses do the actual verifying, and there is no statewide standard.
California State University Chico and American River College, for example, accept a simple statement from students that they are eligible and only require extra documents if there is conflicting information in their applications, according to the student aid commission. But other campuses require much more information, such as W-2 forms, IRS tax transcripts or household size information.
That’s when some students fall through the cracks, said Sergio Belloso, a counselor at Santa Monica College’s Dream Resource Center, which provides legal, mental health and financial aid counseling services for the college’s undocumented students.
“Sometimes students just stop that process, because they’re like, ‘I don’t want to give them my information,’” Belloso said.
The affidavit and financial aid application also must be sent to different departments on campus, often causing delays and confusion for students.
At Santa Monica College, the Dream Resource Center serves on average 200 undocumented students per semester, Belloso said. Although tuition at California community colleges is just $46 per credit hour, or free on some campuses, many students, regardless of immigration status, use financial aid to cover additional expenses such as textbooks, transportation, and living costs.
Belloso said he and other center staff spend a large portion of their time and resources on helping students get financial aid, including those who don’t qualify for aid and in-state tuition. If other campus staff members were better trained to understand financial aid for undocumented students, the center would have more time to explore other aspects of its mission, such as providing legal help, he said.
Cristina Sanchez, who provides drop-in counseling to undocumented students at Solano College, said she started her job right after graduating from college with little more than an Excel spreadsheet with student contact information. As the sole, part-time staff member tasked with supporting about 200 undocumented students, Sanchez is also concerned the students she serves may not be getting the financial aid information they need.
“I was not given any training or anything like that, it was kind of like, ‘Here you go,’” Sanchez said. “So it’s been a lot of teaching myself or going out of my way to learn more, because I’m not undocumented.”
Sanchez said a lot of times she is sending students to other counselors and financial aid officers, creating a game of hot potato and potential communication breakdowns between campus departments.
Strengthening campus centers for undocumented students could help such students persist and navigate financial aid difficulties, students and counselors said. Even though the staff at UC Riverside’s Undocumented Student Programs couldn’t fix Mojica’s financial aid problem, she said, they welcomed her to campus, apologized for the difficulties she was having and even helped her find a work-study job doing social media for an undocumented student organization. Mojica said the support helped her feel like she belonged on campus.
“They were super welcoming. They spoke to my mom, started telling me about our (food) pantry and about the groceries. Although I didn’t ask, they were already giving me so much information,” said Mojica. “It had a big impact on me.”
The center, which supports more than 600 students, one of the largest undocumented student populations among UC campuses, plans to hire a dedicated counselor to assist undocumented students with their financial aid applications.
Meanwhile, the student aid commission is working to tackle some of the issues in the Dream Act application process. It has recommended reducing the percentage of applications requiring verification and allowing Dream Act applicants to receive text message updates on the status of their aid.
The commission is also sponsoring Assembly Bill 1540, introduced by Los Angeles Democratic Assemblymember Mike Fong, which would allow undocumented students to fill out a single application for both their financial aid and residency. It’s currently under consideration in the appropriations committee.
“We think that it should be intuitive. Students shouldn’t have to go through a maze to figure out how to get financial aid,” said Garcia. “The financial aid system should meet students where they’re at more effectively.”
Although both Sanchez and Belloso are excited to see a more streamlined application for students, Belloso feels there is still more that can be done to help undocumented students pursue higher education. He hopes campuses and the aid commission will collect and share campus-level data on how many undocumented students are applying for and receiving aid, so counselors like him can better support them. More financial aid training for other campus staff would also help, he said.
“Colleges may say ‘The Dream program is there, undocumented students can get help,’ but it doesn’t mean that we’re actually helping all the students,” he said.