By Isabelle Kenagy, Medill, Immigrant Connect June 2021
Evelyn Venegas recalls sitting in her Chicago Public School college counselor’s office contemplating her future and knowing college was a priority. “My counselor looked at me and said, ‘I’ve never dealt with this before. But we’re going to get through this together.’”
She was the first DACA student her CPS counselor had ever faced, and both soon realized the bumpy and lengthy road of complications that lay ahead.
“I had to be strategic,” she recalls, “It wasn’t, ‘Do they have my major? Do I like this program?’ No, it was, ‘Do they have funding that doesn’t specify citizenship?’” Venegas applied to 17 colleges, in hopes that one would offer her the financial support she needed.
College admissions is a known beast. Think SAT prep, extracurricular activities, leadership positions, and financial aid. The high profile scandal notwithstanding, the process is usually fair with admission based on merit and aid based on need. But for many DACA recipients, the process is both unknown and unfair. It’s a whole different ball game, one where the home-field advantage of citizenship is unavailable to the player.
DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) itself is a complicated and fickle program. It was introduced by the Obama administration in 2012 to place a moratorium on potential deportations of those who arrived in the United States as children, and make them eligible for a work permit.
DACA is a step in immigration reform but unlike DREAM acts — which had 11 unsuccessful versions proposed to Congress — DACA doesn’t provide a pathway to citizenship. Furthermore, DACA status must be renewed every two years.
With a new administration, programs like DACA enter yet another state of uncertainty. This was the case with the transition from Obama to Trump. In reaction to previous Republican opposition to DACA, Trump attempted to phase out DACA in Sept. 2017. The attempt was blocked, but Trump’s intense opposition to the program kept DACA in purgatory. As a new administration begins its work, many long standing questions about DACA are being answered. But this question persists: How will Biden’s policies affect DACA students’ access to higher education?
What is Biden planning for DACA?
With the Biden administration, it seems DACA recipients are in more welcoming hands. On Jan. 20, 2021, the day of his inauguration, Biden reinstated DACA. The action was seen as a reversal of Trump-era policies, and Biden has since followed with actions that bolster his position as a pro-immigrant president.
Biden proposed the U.S. Citizenship Act to Congress which would make any DREAMer immediately eligible for a green card and a path to citizenship. It’s an effort activists have been supporting for years. On May 14, Biden met with a group of DACA recipients to boost support for the act. Due to a U.S. District Court ruling in Dec. 2020, DACA is once again open to new applicants who meet the guidelines set forth by the Obama administration.
The Biden administration began approving new applications. They also modified policies to be more inclusive. This May, as the Department of Education rolled out a $36 million relief package to universities, Biden changed a previous Trump policy that barred undocumented students from accessing federal aid. As a result of this change, DACA students and undocumented students are eligible to receive a portion of the relief money that can be allocated towards student financial needs.
Only time will tell a fuller story. The U.S. Citizenship Act faces a tough road ahead in garnering support, and it is likely that, as with many presidential actions, reform will only scratch the surface.
What are DACA students facing when applying to college?
Access to higher education for DACA recipients is one of the areas federal law fails to support. Public and private universities in the U.S. are open to applications from DACA recipients, as they are with international students, but that is not where the problem lies.
At the beginning of the higher education process, DACA students simply lack information. As Leezia Dhalla, press director for FWD.us, explained, “There’s a lot of challenges that immigrant students have, especially DACA recipients, where oftentimes you’re a first generation student and don’t know how to navigate the system.”
Monzerrath Gaytan, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) College and Career Coach, explained the learning process in her own experience as a DACA student applying to college. “I knew my parents wanted me to go to college but we never talked about it. I learned about college and the SATs and everything from my high school,” she said.
Once Gaytan was informed of college admission requirements, she was able to successfully check every box. It wasn’t enough. “I did everything I could. I was part of so many organizations and had AP credits, but there was just that one thing: the financial side,” Gaytan said.
As Gaytan describes, the price tag for DACA students is often the biggest barrier. Dhalla agreed and said, “The data shows today that there’s around 65,000 undocumented kids who graduate from American high schools every year. Five to ten percent of them go to college. Money is a huge factor in that.”
The financial barrier is not simply due to the lack of wealth in immigrant families. College provides a financial challenge for plenty of Americans. The financial barrier conversation applies to a large swath of first generation and low-income students. DACA recipients stand out in that they are not eligible to receive federal aid through FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). In many cases, they don’t qualify for in-state tuition. As an example, the state of Georgia provides select in-state tuition for border residents of Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee. They don’t provide in-state tuition for in-state DACA students and undocumented students were previously barred from admission to any public college in the state. There is already a gap between the contribution American families can make and federal aid provided. These policies only widen that gap for DACA recipients.
DACA students also struggle to get loans as many banks require a cosigner to be a United States citizen. Venegas described feeling thankful her uncle could co-sign while recalling others who fell victim to loan sharks. When it comes down to it, college funding is simply a battle.
When dealing with the FAFSA gap, college counselors and students must get creative and look for other options. As Venegas, the Family Support Network Coordinator at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), explained, “counselors got creative when DACA was threatened by the Trump administration, and I think those creative strategies will carry on.”
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) approaches this challenge by providing specific guidance on financial aid, an exemption from the CPS-wide requirement to fill out the FAFSA, and partnerships with the Mayor’s office and organizations like the ICIRR. Luis Narvaez from the CPS office of Language and Cultural Education described an example of his work and said, “Our requirement that all CPS students fill out the FAFSA can be confusing. When [DACA] students learn they are not eligible, we don’t want to stop the conversation there. We want to show them what they are eligible for and continue that path towards college.
“It’s an equity issue,” he emphasized. “We’re making sure all students are getting service no matter where they were born.”
DACA students are eligible for a number of scholarships, such as the Chicago Star Fund and CPS Dream Fund. In greater Illinois, the Illinois RISE Act provides qualifying DACA and undocumented applicants with the Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid. Under this application, students can access state funds that aim to replace FAFSA money. These financial options are certainly helpful, though competitive. As Gaytan said, “The GPA requirement for [the scholarship] is too high. The reality is that many DACA recipients can’t fully focus on school because they have to support their families. Often DACA students are the only ones in their family with a work permit so they have to provide and can’t have that perfect GPA.”
There are also privately funded scholarships from outside organizations or from the colleges themselves. In a state like Illinois, where DACA students are eligible for in-state tuition and provided with a number of state scholarships, school-sponsored scholarships are easier to come by. Illinois State University provides a number of merit scholarships independent of citizenship status and schools like Northwestern and the University of Chicago meet 100% of demonstrated financial need regardless of citizenship. Furthermore, many universities are switching to a need-blind admissions process, thus providing more low-income and DACA students admission. The popular Common App platform has announced that starting Fall 2021, students will no longer be obligated to answer questions regarding their citizenship status or provide a social security number.
The challenges DACA students face in college
There is the inevitable relief that comes with college acceptances and scholarships. Students feel they’ve crossed the major hurdle and can sail smoothly through college. But that was not the case for Venegas or many other DACA students. As she described, “It’s a sacrifice. You’re not going to be a typical college student if you have to work for your tuition, which is what almost every undocumented or DACA student I know has done.”
Gaytan described a similar feeling, “When my students ask me, ‘Oh is college fun? Is it exciting?’ I want to say yes but unfortunately the answer is mainly no. I worked the whole time.“
Venegas described students she knew who would take breaks in between semesters in order to save up for tuition. Dhalla dreamed of studying abroad but was never able to because of her status. Ultimately, as Venegas said, “You sacrifice your social life and your time, and the money you make goes straight back into paying for college.”
Universities have made efforts to remedy these college experience gaps by providing a range of counseling services, ally workshops, and student support groups. UChicago provides DACA students with legal resources while Yale helps DACA students get travel authorizations, a difficult process for DACA recipients.
What is Biden expected to do?
With this litany of challenges and complications, the question becomes: how can a presidential administration help remedy these issues? And what is expected from the Biden administration?
Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act and new federal COVID aid packages may provide a clue and direction. The Biden administration has already demonstrated consideration of immigrants. But as Venegas said, “If this administration did actually follow its word of supporting immigrants in this country, one of the biggest ways to support is to federally encourage universities to provide in-state tuition and specific funds for these specific students.” And in the same way Illinois has made room for DACA state aid with the RISE Act, the federal government could open the FAFSA to DACA students.
The reality, often acknowledged by progressive congresspeople and activists is that no DACA effort will be sufficient without a path to citizenship. This is where Biden can ultimately make a major impact on immigrant reform. His proposed U.S. Citizenship Act is criticized by Democrats for being insufficient and criticized by Republicans for being too lenient on immigrants, but it provides DREAMers with a path to citizenship which is a critical move. If Biden can rally enough support and pass the act, college admissions and life in general will be forever changed for young immigrants.
And Venegas believes it is not unreasonable to expect this. “The whole point of DACA was to provide a way students can go to school and get educated and get jobs. Why would we want to make it harder for students to get educated?” she said.