By Leo Rodriguez
Growing up undocumented in this country instilled a lot of doubt and uncertainty about my future, especially as I navigated the education system.
Throughout elementary and middle school, I thrived academically and was placed in advanced courses. But when I got to high school, my immigration status began to cloud my plans for the future. The realization that my dreams were fading broke me.
It became very clear that I would have to do more than work hard to get into a good university. My parents helped me remember that an education, what you have learned, read and written, is something that can never be taken away from you, no matter how difficult or uncertain the circumstances.
California has led the nation in opening up in-state tuition and financial aid opportunities for undocumented students. However, the reality remains that the path to college for undocumented students in California is daunting, fraught with obstacles, and largely unaffordable. According to a new report from the California Student Aid Commission, only 14% of undocumented California college students received financial aid in the 2021-22 academic year.
Why are so many undocumented students still struggling to pay for college, and what can California lawmakers do to ensure undocumented students have effective access to financial aid?
First, the financial aid process itself is confusing and fraught with countless obstacles.
In high school, very few counselors have a clear understanding of the California Dream Act Application, the California state financial aid application available to undocumented students. I hardly ever saw financial aid workshops tailored for undocumented students in high school; most of the information was specific to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which sent mixed messages about whether or not I was eligible for financial aid to begin with.
When I first enrolled in a community college, I was charged $6,000 because I was incorrectly considered an international student, which is common among undocumented students. I was also not offered financial aid despite attending and graduating from a California high school because I was unaware of the requirements for completing an AB 540 affidavit form to demonstrate eligibility for in-state tuition, and for completing a separate Dream Act application to be considered for financial aid.
In addition, I was asked to register for the selective service and provide a social security number, even though my undocumented status prevented me from fulfilling both requests. The process was so frustrating that it made me wonder if I wanted to fully enroll in college.
Thousands of undocumented students in California face similar challenges due to a complicated financial aid process that requires us to fill out multiple application forms and provide documentation to different entities just to be considered for financial aid.
Policymakers can take proactive steps right now to consolidate the AB 540 affidavit process in the Dream Act application so that students only have to fill out one application form when applying for financial aid, ensuring students don’t get stuck or deterred by the process.
California elected officials can also be creative in helping undocumented students offset the financial aid burden we face because we are unable to receive federal aid.
Students who receive a Federal Pell Grant receive between $5,000 and more than $7,000 a year to support their higher education expenses. Undocumented students have to make up that substantial gap, but have limited employment options, including work-study, due to our immigration status. While California has started programs like the Dream Act Service Incentive Grant and the College Corps, which allow undocumented students to receive help with community service, we are still locked out of the full range of job opportunities, like paid internships, for example, that align with our field of study and prepare for our careers.
Nearly 100,000 undocumented students are actively seeking a higher education in California, myself included. Each of us has dreams of putting our education and degrees to good use, such as teachers, doctors, writers, and many other professions. We are being prepared and we are eager to contribute to our economy and state. However, we can only do this to the fullest extent possible if we have the same opportunity and access to financial aid as our peers.
I hope our elected officials recognize the tremendous added value of undocumented students and remove the obstacles that prevent so many students from getting financial aid and a college education in the first place.
Leo Rodríguez is a student at UC Berkeley. He previously served on the California Student Aid Commission.