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'Dream Act' Makes Undocumented Students Eligible For Already-Strained Aid Program

Martha Kang
University of Washington freshman Carlos Escutia, who is undocumented and received a state need grant to help cover his college costs, carries his younger sister up the stairs of his new dorm.

Fall classes began at many of Washington's public universities Wednesday, beginning the first term undocumented immigrant students can receive state-backed financial aid under a new state law.

But while more than 2,000 students applied to receive state need grants under provisions of the newly-enacted Washington "Dream Act," state higher education officials say it's possible as many as 700 of these undocumented students won't receive an aid award at all — even if they're eligible.

It's not just undocumented students who will miss out. Though state expenditures on the program have ballooned as tuition costs get higher, there isn't enough funding for the state need grant program to offer aid to every eligible Washington student.

'We're Very Concerned'

Based on their income, students can qualify for up to $10,800 through the state need grant program, depending on which college or university they attend. But more than 33,000 of the 104,000 students who applied for a grant did not receive one, despite being eligible, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council, or WSAC.

"Leaving students without funding is something we're very concerned about, because then students have to turn to federal loans if they're eligible, they have to take fewer classes," said Rachelle Sharpe, WSAC's senior director of financial aid.

Undocumented students, though, are not eligible for federally-funded loans, grants or work study. Until the Washington Dream Act's passage, they had to rely on competitive private scholarships and institutional aid from their colleges in order to afford higher education.

Funding for the need grant program more than doubled between 2003 and 2012, the Washington State Public Policy Institute notes. But the increased expenditures have been necessary to keep up with rising tuition, rather than to expand the program to serve more eligible students, the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board noted in 2011.

'Don't Blame Undocumented Students'

In addition to making undocumented students eligible, the Dream Act legislation included an extra $5 million appropriation for state need grants, enough to cover the average award amount — around $4,000 — for 1,250 additional students. That funding is not specifically earmarked for aid awards to undocumented students.

Even lawmakers who support broadening the eligibility pool to include certain undocumented students noted their concerns about the state need grant program's funding level during floor debate last session.

"That's an argument that has nothing to do with immigration and everything to do with the way the state funds education," said Ray Corona, who heads the Washington Dream Act Coalition. "The state need grant was already underfunded prior to having undocumented students eligible for this fund. We should not be blaming undocumented students for the priorities within this state when it comes to education matters."

The Dream Act, which passed both chambers of the legislature with wide and bipartisan majorities last session, makes students eligible for state need grants if they graduated from Washington high schools and have lived in the state continuously for three years.

Undocumented students must also qualify for "deferred action for childhood arrivals," a federal government designation for migrants who came to the U.S. as children, in order to receive state need grants.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.