In summary

California offers financial aid to undocumented students, but a new report found that only 14% took advantage last year. Consolidating the convoluted application process and expanding work opportunities so undocumented students could cover the gaps left by a lack of federal aid could help.

Guest Commentary written by

Leo Rodriguez

Leo Rodriguez

Leo Rodriguez is a student at UC Berkeley. He previously served on the California Student Aid Commission.

Growing up undocumented in this country instilled plenty of doubt and uncertainty about my future, especially while navigating 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 cast a shadow over my plans for the future. The realization that my dreams were slipping away broke me.

It became abundantly clear that I would need to do more than just work hard to get into a good college. My parents helped me remember that an education – what you’ve learned, read and written – is something that can never be taken 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 to undocumented students. However, the reality remains that the path through college for undocumented students in California is daunting, riddled with obstacles and largely unaffordable. According to a new report by the California Student Aid Commission, only 14% of California’s undocumented college students received financial aid in the 2021-22 academic year. 

Why are so many undocumented students still struggling to afford college, and what can California’s policymakers do to ensure undocumented students are effectively accessing financial aid? 

First, the financial aid process itself is confusing and filled with countless roadblocks.

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 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 at a community college, I was billed $6,000 because I was incorrectly deemed an international student, a common occurrence for 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 to fill out an AB 540 affidavit form to prove eligibility for in-state tuition, and to separately complete a Dream Act application to be considered for financial aid.

In addition, I was asked to register for selective service and provide a social security number, even though my undocumented status prevented me from being able to fulfill both of those requests. The process was so frustrating it made me question whether I wanted to enroll in college altogether.

Undocumented students qualify for financial aid in California. Why aren’t more of them using it?

Tens of thousands of undocumented students in California are potentially eligible for financial aid from the state and public universities. But only 14% of undocumented students actually receive it, according to a recent report by the California Student Aid Commission. Students, counselors and the commission itself are calling for improvements in the application process and…

Thousands of undocumented students in California face similar challenges because of a convoluted 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.

Lawmakers can take proactive steps right now to consolidate the AB 540 affidavit process into 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 get creative about helping undocumented students offset the financial aid burden we face because we cannot receive federal aid. 

Students that receive a federal Pell Grant receive between $5,000 to over $7,000 annually to support their higher education expenses. Undocumented students have to make up for that substantial gap, yet have limited employment options, including work study, due to our immigration status. While California has initiated programs like the Dream Act Service Incentive Grant and College Corps, which allow undocumented students to receive aid for community service, we are still excluded from the full range of work opportunities – like paid internships, for example – that align with our field of studies and prepare us for our careers.

Close to 100,000 undocumented students are actively pursuing higher education in California, myself included. We each have dreams to put our education and degrees to good use, as teachers, doctors, writers and countless other professions. We are being prepared for and are eager to contribute to our economy and state. However, we can only do that to the fullest extent possible if we have the same opportunity and access to financial aid as our peers.  

I hope our elected officials will recognize the enormous value-add of undocumented students and remove the roadblocks that obstruct so many students from securing financial aid and a college education in the first place.

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