Many California undocumented students are missing out on financial aid

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 15: Students and supporters march to call for amnesty for illegal immigrants on April 15, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Each year more than 35,000 undocumented students with dreams of earning a college degree in California apply for the state's marquee financial aid program, the Cal Grant -- but only about a third receive it.

With no access to federal financial aid and few work opportunities, losing out on state dollars further undermines the ability of undocumented students to pay for school. The Cal Grant, for example, waives tuition at California's public universities and provides cash awards of about $1,650 to community college students.

Now, after several years of advocacy and a state law passed this year, California financial aid administrators are about to debut a revised application meant to get more college grants for undocumented students.

"What we all recognized was that we've asked these students to go through more processes, more forms, unfortunately to receive less financial aid," said Jake Brymner, deputy director for policy and public affairs for the California Student Aid Commission. He and a commission staff member provided CalMatters with a virtual walkthrough of the new application.

The California Dream Act Application, often called CADAA, will for the first time allow students to also complete a frequently overlooked legal affidavit that's essential to accessing state aid. The new application will debut by the end of December. 

While a seemingly small change, it spares students from having to fill out two documents separately and at different times in the year, which has been the process ever since undocumented students became eligible for state aid through a 2011 state law. That has resulted in many students completing one form but not the other out of confusion or lack of awareness.

For example, among community college students, about 62,000 completed the affidavit but only around 25,000 finished the dream act application in 2021, according to data from the California Student Aid Commission, the state agency behind the application overhaul.

Without the application and affidavit, undocumented community college students can't receive the Cal Grant and other related aid, such as a grant for full-time students and money in exchange for community service. Those three programs together provide more than $14,000 in possible grants annually. Undocumented students at public universities also lose out on key aid. Most undocumented college students in California attend a community college.

Now the legal affidavit will be embedded in the California Dream Act Application, the result of a 2023 state law created through Assembly Bill 1540, authored by Mike Fong, a Democrat from Monterey Park.

The changes should help students who are in a situation Leo Rodriguez was in when he began college. "When I first enrolled at a community college, I was billed $6,000 because I was incorrectly deemed an international student, a common occurrence for undocumented students," he wrote in a May CalMatters commentary about affording college as an undocumented student.

Though he attended and graduated from a California high school, he didn't know that he needed the affidavit "to prove eligibility for in-state tuition, and to separately complete a Dream Act application to be considered for financial aid."

A March report by the commission identified many of the hurdles undocumented students face in accessing state aid, including student confusion over the affidavit. All told, only about 14% of the state's nearly 100,000 undocumented college students received any state financial aid in 2021-22, in large part because half didn't take the first step to apply for aid even though many have low incomes. The report called for a state law to allow the affidavit to be a part of the dream act application. About half a year later, Fong's bill was signed into law.

The affidavit in question stems from a 2001 law that has been amended several times since. It grants undocumented students, certain visa holders and other college-goers in-state tuition at California's public universities and community colleges. This is a major perk because students deemed non-residents are charged about three times more in tuition. The in-state designation also makes undocumented students eligible for state grants, such as tuition waivers and cash awards.

That's where the California Dream Act Application and the affidavit intersect: One opens the door for aid, the other lets the applicant walk through it.

Students who sign the affidavit declare that they've either filed an application to legalize their immigration status in the U.S. or will do so once national law creates such a pathway. It also has students confirm that they've had three years of K-12, adult school or community college education in California as well as: a high school diploma, an equivalent certificate, an associate degree or proof that they've taken the minimum set courses needed to transfer to a University of California or California State University campus.

Embedding the affidavit in the dream act application is "going to be a big step forward", but it's not the only step needed "to ensure that students can receive all the financial aid for whatever they have eligibility for," said Nancy Jodaitis, director of higher education issues at Immigrants Rising, a San Francisco-based project of a larger nonprofit.

Sending the affidavit to the schools the student hopes to attend is the first step, but all UCs and Cal States, and about half of community colleges, require official transcripts and attendance records from the student. How campuses will notify students with outstanding paperwork will be an ongoing issue to monitor, Jodaitis said.

Immigrants Rising in May published a comprehensive guide explaining the affidavit process in partnership with the state's public colleges and universities. It's now working on a set of recommendations for how campuses can best apprise students of the remaining paperwork they'll have to submit once they've turned in their affidavit through the dream act. That'll be published in January, she added.

In 2024, UC will ask students to submit the affidavits to the campuses directly, instead of through the dream act application, a spokesperson said. That's because the UC is constitutionally independent of many state laws. Community colleges and Cal State have to comply with the law.

Advocates who focus on financial aid for undocumented students say that schools, state agencies and nonprofits that share with students information about college affordability should proactively include the dream act application and its related forms.

"I hardly saw financial aid workshops tailored for undocumented students in high school," wrote Rodriguez. Instead, he mostly encountered information about the federal Free Application for Federal Student Aid, "which sent mixed messages about whether or not I was eligible for financial aid to begin with," he added.

State law now requires that high school seniors complete a financial aid application, with few exceptions. The more school districts and nonprofits can stress the federal financial aid grant and the dream act application, the likelier undocumented students will hear the message and apply, Jodaitis said.

Information students place in the dream act application isn't shared with the federal government nor with immigration authorities, the commission and state department of education stressed in a 2022 letter. That's a message the commission will likely repeat in the face of a presidential election year in which anti-immigrant sentiment is bound to take center stage.

Students applying for the dream act who intend to enter college in fall 2024 will submit their household's 2022 income information. Once the application goes live, students pursuing a four-year degree should complete the dream act forms by April 2 or sooner. Students planning to attend a community college have until early September to file their paperwork.