Undocumented students' college dreams boosted by new law 

click to enlarge Paying the bills: Undocumented students will be eligible for $25 million in financial aid to attend the CSU system, and $4.3 million to attend UC schools. - AP FILE PHOTO
  • AP file photo
  • Paying the bills: Undocumented students will be eligible for $25 million in financial aid to attend the CSU system, and $4.3 million to attend UC schools.

For young people who are in the United States illegally, higher education can seem like an impossibly expensive goal. While undocumented students who graduate from California high schools can attend the state’s public colleges, they don’t qualify for the federal student loans and grants that help many low-income students pay the bills.

But with the first phase of the California Dream Act taking effect this month, these students now have access to a pre-existing source of tuition money.

The law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, makes undocumented students eligible for the first time for private scholarships administered by California’s public colleges. Beginning in January 2013, the second phase of the Dream Act will take effect, qualifying the students for public grants and tuition waivers.

“It’s going to make a huge difference for these kids,” said Amie Tat, who works for youth development organization 7 TePees as a college counselor at John O’Connell High School in the Mission.

Undocumented students will not begin receiving Cal Grants, worth up to $12,192 a year, until 2013. But this year’s measure could still help with tuition payments.

“We estimate there are about 440 undocumented undergraduates who would qualify for roughly $4.3 million,” said Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman with the University of California system.

At Cal State, spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp said there will be about $25 million available, although he could not say how many undocumented students are in the system.

These privately funded scholarships usually are aimed at particular groups of students — English majors, for example, or people of a certain ancestry.

Some Californians oppose the Dream Act, worrying that it will force more students to compete for a shrinking pool of financial aid in an era of withering public budgets. A group called Stop the CA Nightmare Act, led by Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, is collecting signatures to repeal the law with a ballot measure.

“We don’t have the resources,” the group wrote on its website. “We’re putting millions into this, with no payoff for the state. We literally don’t have the money.”

Despite the restrictions and the opposition, Tat said the Dream Act will give hope to the undocumented teens she works with, many of whom feel they don’t have a future.

“A lot of students are really afraid to talk about it,” she said. “And other students don’t even know they’re undocumented.”

Some, who may have come to the United States as young children, only learn about their status when they realize they have no Social Security number to write on college application forms, she said.

“Some students actually break down into tears finding out about it,” she said.

acrawford@sfexaminer.com

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Amy Crawford

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