The Moral Absurdity of Denying Financial Aid to Undocumented Students

February 21, 2016

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle
Financial-aid nights offer a fascinating window into the state of the world. Spending long hours talking with students, parents, guidance counselors, and legal guardians in a rural high-school or a downtown community center, I am always struck by the chasm that separates bloodless policy discussions from lived reality.

Last year, for instance, there was intense controversy over a scuttled Obama-­administration proposal to end a tax exemption for college-savings plans. "Critics pounce on Obama’s plan to cut the tax benefits of 529 college savings plans," The Washington Post reported. The political fallout was dissected for weeks, though barely 3 percent of families have 529 plans. That tiny minority is also disproportionately wealthy — a decade of falling median incomes hasn’t left much leeway for college planning among the non-rich.

A few months ago, I went to a national conference where the hot topic among aid administrators was retirement savings, and whether "excessive" assets ought to be counted as a college resource. Meanwhile, about half of working adults have no retirement savings at all, and more than half of those approaching retirement age have less than $25,000. Not surprisingly, I don’t field many questions about excess capital in 401(k)’s.

But the most jarring gulf between policy and practice, at least in my home state of North Carolina, emerges around immigration. While national leaders preach mass deportation or debate a long and arduous path to legal status, school counselors and college administrators are confronted every day with the wrenching fallout of a failed system.

For me, it almost always comes in the form of a quiet plea, offered as a financial-aid night wraps up. After all of the questions about summer jobs and custody issues have been asked and answered in front of the crowd, a student will linger, waiting patiently to speak with me away from the audience.

Whenever this happens, the students tell me about growing up in North Carolina, about working hard in school, about their grades and their extracurriculars. They tell me about the classes they’ve loved, about the teachers or counselors who’ve encouraged them. They tell me about dreams of becoming an engineer, or a nurse, or a computer programmer.

Colleges work hard to recruit kids like those: self-motivated, sharp, and ready to succeed in one of our tougher disciplines. Policy makers profess to want them, too. Every politician who has wandered past a microphone in recent years — Republican or Democratic, urban or rural, moderate or radical — has called for more graduates in science and mathematics, more young people with solid career ambitions and the drive to succeed in higher education. Our economy needs those students, I am well assured.

But all too often, with manifestly qualified students standing before me and asking for the chance to earn a degree, I am charged with slamming the door.

"I’m sorry," I have to tell them. "But there’s not much we can do if you’re undocumented."

No reasonable doctrine holds children responsible for the sins of parents, yet that is exactly what most states are doing when it comes to tuition and aid for undocumented young people.
By the time they’re talking to me, the students have come to expect disappointment. Brought to this country years ago, spirited across a border they were too young to comprehend by parents who wanted better for them, the children are beginning to understand their outlaw status. They’ve begun to realize that our laws treat them as indefinite accomplices to a crime committed when they were toddlers.

So now, even though they might have lived an entire remembered existence within my state, I have to tell them that they’re nonresidents, at least when it comes to college tuition, and that they won’t be eligible for financial aid. Those are the policies; those are the choices we have democratically made for shepherding these blameless children.

The best I can do is scribble down a first name and an email address; I will pass them along to one of the nonprofit groups that tries to find options for undocumented students. And I apologize that there’s not a better, more persuasive answer for why undocumented children are allowed to graduate high school — indeed, are legally compelled to attend school in the United States — but effectively are barred from our public colleges.

Immigration is a legitimately tough issue. I don’t know the best way to handle those who came here illegally — the adults who made decisions and crossed borders, and have now lived in the United States for years or decades. Their situation is politically and morally fraught.

The fate of their children should not be. No reasonable doctrine holds children responsible for the sins of parents, yet that is exactly what most states are doing when it comes to tuition and aid for undocumented young people. If the daughter of a drug addict shows up at my financial-aid night seeking aid and advice, I congratulate her on overcoming a tragic obstacle. But the daughter of a fieldworker who hiked across the Arizona desert a decade ago? I’m supposed to turn her away.

At least 20 states have recognized the moral absurdity in that situation. Legislatures in several states, including Florida and Utah, have decided to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students who meet basic criteria. A handful of states — including California, Minnesota, and Texas — even allow access to state financial aid. But in most of the country, a closed door prevails.

Federal legislation that would replace that confusing patchwork with a more humane system, the Dream Act, has been stymied for nearly five years. Meanwhile, yet another class of ambitious, talented, and innocent Dreamers will soon graduate without a clear path to college.

The cost of that squandered opportunity is mounting. Not only in the teachers, nurses, engineers, and entrepreneurs we’re missing, but in the generational leadership we’re going to need in a demographically changing America.

These are our children. They grew up in our towns, they speak our language, and they have worked and learned in our schools. To leave them permanently exiled within their own world is not a policy — it is an abdication. And it will come to haunt us, as too many of these aid-night conversations already haunt me.

Eric Johnson is assistant director for policy analysis and communications in the office of scholarships and student aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The views expressed here are his own.