College System Boosts Efforts for Undocumented Students - Higher Education
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College System Boosts Efforts for Undocumented Students

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by Catherine Morris


The University of California system is making a strong effort to assist the undocumented students who seek out an education at its campuses. In 2013, UC president Janet Napolitano allocated $5 million for undocumented students. UC Davis received $500,000 to create a center specifically for undocumented students on campus.

UC Davis’ AB450 and Undocumented Student Center started in October 2014 and just wrapped up its first academic year of existence. Andrea Gaytan, the center’s director, said that she has received enthusiastic support from the community.

“We’ve had such an outpouring of support from our campus and our community wanting to help that we’ve really been able to find common points of interest with other departments and entities,” Gaytan said. “I’m shocked at how generous people are and how interested they are in helping students.”

Students without documentation that would legally allow them to reside and work in the United States are a particularly vulnerable population on college and university campuses across the nation. There are an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 undocumented students in the US.

Their origins and even legal statuses are believed to be quite diverse, particularly after passage of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and laws passed in different states implementing versions of President Barack Obama’s proposed DREAM Act. Such legislation allows a narrow segment of the undocumented immigrant population to apply for a two-year work permit and a temporary reprieve from deportation. Eligible applicants must have arrived in the US before they were 16, the logic being that they were either brought to or arrived in the US as minors and may not have been aware of the legal implications of their status.

A recent study from the Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies found that financial issues are the largest barriers to undocumented students attempting to earn a postsecondary degree or certificate. Of the 909 undocumented undergraduate students surveyed for the study, 61.3 percent came from households that earn less than $30,000 annually—more than annual out-of-state tuition and other related expenses for one year of state school.

Despite their lack of resources, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal financial aid, and some states require undocumented residents of the state to pay out-of-state tuition rates that might equal or surpass their family’s entire annual income.

The center is intended to help undocumented students navigate the complexities of college. Undocumented students are also eligible for legal assistance at UC Davis’ School of Law Immigrant Law Clinic. It is also symbolic of the community’s support for undocumented students.

Gaytan attributed the support for the center to the rural nature of the Davis community. She said that she had received practically no negative feedback, other than two callers from southern California, who, as Gaytan noted, had no relationship with UC Davis and were hundreds of miles away. “Undocumented people have been so integral in supporting our agricultural industry that you can’t talk to anyone in that region without them saying, ‘I know someone who is undocumented, and I know they’re a decent, hardworking person who’s here to really improve their life or do better for their family,’” she said.

At a school like UC Davis, annual tuition and living expenses for in-state students are an approximate $30,000 annually. Even with the financial aid available for California DREAMers, Gaytan said that most undocumented students fall about $8,000 short. As part of their financial aid package, students are required to contribute about $3,500 on their own, and they are not eligible for Pell Grants, which would cover a further $5,000. It is up to the students to find a way to pay that extra $8,000.

Some are able to find outside financial aid. Gaytan said that faith-based organizations are doing extraordinary work supporting such students financially. Others, however, may suffer from food insecurity and other issues as a result of their financial burdens.

Despite the financial difficulties, the numbers of undocumented students at UC Davis are growing year by year. In 2012-13, there were 78 undocumented students on campus and 273 in 2014-2015. Gaytan and her colleagues said that growth has been spurred by the passage of DACA. It is estimated that there are about 2,000 undocumented students in the UC system. The majority are Asian, although UC Davis has a larger Latino community.

The reality is that undocumented students are attending schools across the US, even those institutions that do not offer assistance specifically for undocumented students. Gaytan said that, even if schools did not have the resources to open a center, they might consider providing training for administrators in relevant departments who would be able to support undocumented students better. “A lot of people are providing the services without an institutional mandate. They’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com.

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