University News

UC-backed bill to help undocumented students get financial aid

State Sen. Ricardo Lara introduces legislation that would create a loan program

Janet Napolitano
University of California

UC President Janet Napolitano

California state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Huntington Park/Long Beach, recently introduced a bill sponsored by the University of California that, if approved, would close a significant gap in the financial aid for undocumented students who qualify for in-state tuition, but are currently ineligible for federal assistance because of their immigration status.

UC President Janet Napolitano attended the Senate Education Committee to ask members to support the proposed law. It would create an educational loan program for undocumented students who graduated from a California high school and who meet other eligibility requirements under state law AB 540.

There are an estimated 2,000 undocumented undergraduates currently enrolled at UC, Napolitano said. They are more likely than other students to come from low-income families and to be the first in their families to attend college.

The loan program would give them the same access to financial resources as other students and improve their opportunities for academic success at the university, she told the committee.

"These students have worked hard to achieve oftheir dream  a university education, and I believe we should work as hard to ensure they have every chance to succeed, including providing them with access to the same resources as their campus peers," Napolitano said.

Narrowing the financial aid gap

Under state law AB 540, undocumented students who graduated from a California high school after attending for at least three years are eligible for in-state tuition at UC and California State University campuses. But they do not qualify for federal loans or Pell Grants, or for most private loans.

At UC, the resulting gap in federal aid amounts to between $5,000 and $6,000 a year per student.

"Unless students fill this gap by working significant additional hours for pay — to the detriment of their studies — or somehow find other outside resources, they risk having to withdraw from the university," Napolitano said.

To help undocumented undergraduates at UCLA overcome financial obstacles so they can stay in school, the Bruin Resource Center recently launched a program to help them cope with the high cost of textbooks. Another program it will be soon rolling out will assist undocumented students with food and transportation costs.

After surveying undocumented students at UCLA, said Angela Chen, coordinator of the Undocumented Student Program at the center, "we leaned that many students lack the funds to purchase food or pay for the cost of getting to campus."

While undocumented students at UCLA receive counseling on financial aid and can attend Bruin Resource Center workshops to learn about work authorization and available resources to help them find jobs, the financial gap is still a threat to their education.

"I think [Sen. Lara’s bill] is a step in the right direction," said Chen, who added that she didn’t know enough about the details of the bill to envision how it will impact students.

Working with UCLA Community and Government Relations, Chen said she met with Sen. Lara before to discuss the impact of legislation like AB 540. Recent legislation, which received support from Chancellor Gene Block, has made higher education more accessible to undocumented students.

"This bill would make another financial resource available to undocumented students," she said.

Keeping the doors open

Known formally as the California Education Access Loan Program, or the California Dream Loan Program, the bill would establish campus-based loan programs at both UC and CSU.

Each university system would be responsible for originating, servicing and collecting the loans, which would have a common interest rate and uniform repayment terms. Repaid loans would go back to an institution's pool for future loans.

The initial funding for the program would be set at $9.2 million, Lara said. He said the loan program would likely become revenue-neutral and self-supporting over time, with income from the repayment of principal, interest and fees offsetting administrative costs.

"We invest in California students from an early age and many of them have done what we’ve asked them to do: Work hard, study and pursue a higher education," Lara said. "If we’re serious about strengthening our economy then we must remove obstacles for our future workforce when they’re close to the graduation finish line."

UC and CSU would each be required to contribute $1 to the loan pool for every $3 allocated from state funds, a provision that Lara said would help guarantee that institutions administer the program responsibly and minimize defaults. UC's annual commitment is estimated at $1.6 million.

After Napolitano took the helm at UC last October, one of her first acts was to allocate $5 million in one-time funds to assist undocumented students.

The funds will be used to provide staff training and develop other resources aimed at helping undocumented students navigate their specific financial situation.

In urging the committee to support the bill, Napolitano said the one-time funds were a stop-gap measure, while the bill would provide "a long-term solution."

"Through their hard work and perseverance, these students earned the opportunity to attend UC. Their accomplishments should not be disregarded, nor their future jeopardized because of their undocumented status," she said.

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