Cal Grants for Dream students rolling out for first time - Brian W. Jones

Cal Grants for Dream students rolling out for first time

Los Angeles Assemblyman Gil Cedillo talks to students about the set of laws he championed to allow undocumented students apply for private and public funding for college. Both laws were signed last year by Governor Jerry Brown. — Courtesy: Office of Gil Cedillo

More than 20,000 unauthorized immigrants have applied for state grants for college — and at least a quarter of them are expected to qualify for a projected total of $19.5 million in the next school year, according to the California Student Aid Commission.

These in-state applicants are the first group of students to seek aid through the California Dream Act, which gives Cal Grant access to the unauthorized, since the Legislature approved the measure two years ago. Their applications, along with increased financial need among California families overall, have contributed to a record year of submissions to the commission, said spokeswoman Patti Colston.

California joins Texas and New Mexico in offering state assistance for college to unauthorized immigrants, said Ann Morse, program director of the Immigrant Policy Project at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Cal Grant entitlement program provides funding for all outbound high school seniors in California, including those who have graduated less than a year ago. Applicants who qualify financially and academically must meet a March 2 filing deadline to be guaranteed an award.

In all, the commission estimates that it will disburse $1.7 billion in Cal Grants for the 2013-2014 school year. California Dream students are not eligible for a portion of the program called “competitive awards.”

The average Cal Grant award for the coming year is expected to be roughly $4,000, and the maximum will likely be $12,192. The highest award for those attending a private college will likely be $9,223.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office — in a report titled “How Will the California Dream Act Affect Higher Education Costs?” — estimated that there would be an upfront cost of about $700,000 for administering the program and ongoing operation expenses of about $250,000 annually.

Applications have come in from across the state, Colston said. The highest number came from the cities of Los Angeles, San Jose, Santa Ana and San Diego. In San Diego County, unauthorized immigrants submitted approximately 920 applications.

The average family income for Dream applicants to Cal State Universities is $20,234 and the average for citizen and resident students is $17,586. Averages for community college students are a little lower and those for University of California applicants are a bit higher but none exceeds $33,000 a year for an average family size of 3.8.(for more demographic details see the chart at the end of the story)

The California Dream Act, authored by then Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, includes Cal Grant and institutional aid programs such as the UC Grant, State University Grant and the community college Board of Governors Fee Waiver.

Cedillo had pushed for the law for years, saying that helping students who were brought to the United States as children attend college would eventually reap greater rewards for the economy and the public in general. The students must have gone to a California high school for at least three years, graduate and be accepted to college.

“It is an investment that the state is making on these students and in return,once these students are able to work, they’ll be able to contribute back to society,” said Cedillo, who is running for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council. “Since many of these students will eventually get legal documentation and/or become citizens, they’ll be able to pay more in taxes from high-wage jobs.”

After his bill was signed into law, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, tried to repeal the measure through a ballot initiative. He and his supporters could not obtain enough signatures for their campaign.

At the time, Donnelly said offering public grants to people in the country without permission was irresponsible, unaffordable and in violation of federal laws.

Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, voted against the California Dream Act.

“I’m concerned that we are expanding an entitlement program in California with general-fund dollars that are already limited and are under pressure from other democratically supported social programs that want to expand funding as well,” Jones said Monday. “A lot of these kids came as children and they are not here by their own choice and we do need to find a way to welcome them, but at this point in time, expanding an entitlement program is not the right way.”

State Sen. Joel Anderson, R-La Mesa, voted against the legislation but was unavailable for comment in recent days. His spokesman, Jeff Powell, said: “Immigration reform must happen at the federal level. Until Congress provides states with guidance, we can’t address these issues in a thoughtful, appropriate manner.”

Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of the Student Aid Commission, said adding California Dream students does not edge out U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents because all Californians who qualify for Cal Grants will receive aid — and their award amount will not be reduced.

“It’s very important for the state because the students are here and they are going to be part of our workforce, and we need to educate all of our kids to make sure they have the skills they need to be successful,” Fuentes-Michel said.

Nearly all Cal Grant funding comes from the state’s general fund, with a small contribution from the federal government, she said. California Dream students will receive only state funds.

At San Diego State University, Itza Perez, a social work student who was brought from Mexico to California illegally when she was 9, is anxiously awaiting her Cal Grant award letter.

The City Heights resident and Hoover High School graduate paid for her freshman year of college with several private scholarships and other aid programs. If she gets a Cal Grant, the money would be designated for tuition and fees. Perez said she would then be able to use some of her other aid to move into campus housing from the low-income home where her family lives.

“This is a big help for students,” said Perez, 19. “This takes a lot of stress off of many students like myself and enables us to focus more on college and more on studying.”

Perez sent in her California Dream paperwork in January. As of March 26, the Student Aid Commission had received 20,182 California Dream applications.

Of those, 17,769 were complete — meaning that all supporting documents were submitted.

The agency estimates that it will award about 6,000 Cal Grants to unauthorized immigrants. It is unclear how much funding each of those students will receive until they finalize what college they will attend.