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California's steps to make college more affordable for undocumented students are not reaching most of them

In the state with the largest student population lacking legal immigration status, few students are receiving financial aid.
Students walk through Sproul Plaza at the University of California at Berkeley on Nov. 4, 2022 .
Students walk through Sproul Plaza at the University of California, Berkeley, on Nov. 4, 2022.Marlena Sloss for The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Though California has taken steps to reduce college costs for students who lack legal immigration status, only a small percentage of students are benefiting, according to a new study.

A report published Wednesday found that only 14% of the state's estimated undocumented college student population received state financial aid in the 2021-2022 school year, posing serious financial challenges for them to pursue educational goals and earn a degree.

“The call to expand and secure college access and affordability for undocumented scholars in California is at a critical juncture,” Marlene Garcia, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, which issued the report titled "Renewing the Dream," said in a statement. CSAC is a state agency that administers financial aid programs and serves as a resource on the topic.

“As the state with the largest undocumented student population in the nation, California has led the country in immigrant-inclusive education policy through groundbreaking policies and programs,” Garcia said. “Despite these important strides, California’s undocumented student population still faces steep challenges.”

Measures such as California Assembly Bill 540, or AB 540, and the California Dream Act give undocumented students access to in-state tuition and aid, since federal financial aid is not applicable for those without legal immigration status, most of whom come from low-income backgrounds.

The California Dream Act Application, or CADAA, is used to determine financial aid eligibility for undocumented students and is the counterpart to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

CSAC found that 55% of CADAA applicants had a $0 expected family contribution based on family income — compared to 40% of those filing FAFSA applications in California to access financial aid.

Yet over half — 53% — of 94,030 undocumented students in postsecondary education didn't fill out the CADAA in 2021-2022.

Undocumented students are still facing challenges, the report said, when it comes to accessing information, navigating the application processes, using campus resources and support, receiving financial aid, and being able to afford college.

Leonardo Rodriguez, 21, a transfer student at the University of California, Berkeley, found it hard to get information about financial aid in high school and said the application process was confusing.

"There wasn’t any other resources — most counselors didn’t even know where to find the information that I was asking for or answers to the questions I had," said Rodriguez, who graduated from Kelseyville High School in 2019 and is a former student commissioner for CSAC.

Rodriguez, who is also a recipient of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, said he first learned he had to fill out the AB 540 affidavit to access in-state tuition when he received a bill from his community college for about $6,000 for his first semester — as if he were an international student or nonresident instead of a state resident.

Once he completed the AB 540 affidavit, he qualified for the California College Promise Grant, which waived most of his tuition. 

When Rodriguez later transferred to UC Berkeley, he said the school required him to complete 15 to 20 more pages of information to fill out AB 540, including voter registration, which isn’t applicable to him since he's not a citizen. AB 540 verification, the report found, varies across higher education segments and between campuses.

The number of CADAA applications decreased significantly — by 26% — for the 2022-23 academic year.

The report issued various recommendations, such as simplifying and streamlining the CADAA by adding visual aides and revising language to make it clearer and make applications shorter.

Few enroll and receive aid

The report found that among students without legal immigration status who do fill out a CADAA, only 30 percent ultimately enroll in a higher education institution and receive state financial aid, according to 2021–22 CSAC data.

Many undocumented students lack work authorization, deterring them from gaining career-relevant work experience in their intended field of study and discouraging them from pursuing higher education, which they may not see as a viable option, according to the study.

“Many individuals have to have two to three jobs because they have to help their families,” said Patricia Jiménez de Valdez, a financial aid officer at American River College. “Parents, many times — they have two or three jobs themselves to support because it’s low-paying jobs.”

The report recommended creating more work authorization programs for students as well as more college fellowships and apprenticeship opportunities.

California Assemblymember Mike Fong, a Democrat and chair of the California Assembly Higher Education Committee, recently introduced four student-centered bills, among them AB 1540, which aims to include the AB 540 affidavit to access in-state tuition in the CADAA to apply for financial aid— one of CSAC’s recommendations to simplify the process.