In an atmosphere of severe stress on the state budget with the governor threatening layoffs and funds for hospitals and other state services on the chopping block, a bill advancing through the legislature would allow students who are not really citizens to tap into financial aid funds that the state’s colleges and universities now only can provide to students who are U.S. citizens or have legal immigrant status.
What separates this measure from the struggle to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget without raising taxes, say supporters, is that it would not impact state spending since this so-called institutional financial assistance, the aid provided directly by the schools on a needs basis, comes from funds that are set aside from tuition revenue.
Moreover, while what should be done about illegal immigration is a hot button issue in the presidential campaign, the financial assistance bill’s advocates note that many undocumented students from families who pay taxes are already attending the state schools and are contributing to these funds through their tuition and fees like everyone else even though they cannot share in this aid.
The Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee recently approved SB-147 by an 11-6 vote and sent it to the entire legislation for consideration with the stipulation that it be effective July 1, 2016 with assistance to become available for students in the fall of 2017.
However, with the budget dominating the legislative proceeding, a spokesperson for House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said recently, “Senate bills are not on our radar yet.”
Among SB-147’s supporters is Mark J. Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, a system encompassing four universities, a dozen community college and an online program, but not the University of Connecticut system.
Although Ojakian this week imposed a temporary hiring freeze on the 17 institutions under his auspice, he is on record in favor of SB-147, which he said is “the right thing to do.”
The education official said widening access to the institutional financial assistance would extend the process which made in-state tuition available to Connecticut students without legal status, a measure implemented in 2011 when he was Governor Dannel Malloy’s chief of staff. The focus of this program was to help students who may not have legal immigration status but met certain criteria, such as having lived in the state for several years and having attended a Connecticut high school for at least two years, to obtain the education they need to play a positive role in the state’s future.
The same stipulations for an undocumented student to be eligible for in-state tuition would apply to access to financial aid from the public colleges.
Ojakian elaborated on his support for helping undocumented immigrant students with the cost of higher education in a recent interview with CTLatinoNews.
Q & A
CTLatinoNews: How is the institutional financial assistance, the money state colleges and universities provide on a need basis to eligible students, funded?
Ojakian: Each student, as part of their bill, pay a percentage into this pot of money: institutional aid. Each college and university sets aside 15 percent of all those tuition and fee dollars for institutional aid based on need. The students currently who attend our institutions, as part of their tuition and fee bill, are paying into this fund. They’re just not currently able to access it. I think it prevents many students from attending our institutions and having access to higher education. So I think what this will do is even the playing field.
CTLatinoNews: Is the governor on board?
Ojakian: This item has not come up in recent conversations with Gov. Malloy. I can’t imagine that the man who has advocated for in-state tuition, a second chance society, criminal justice reform and all the progressive things that he has done, would not be in favor of this as well.
CTLatinoNews: Dr. Susan Herbst, UConn president, has been quoted as saying that she backs the aid extension but the pool of funds is already limited and there is a lot of demand. Does this mean slicing the pie into smaller pieces?
Ojakian: We are going to have to slice the pie a little differently, but it would be a very different argument if these students weren’t already paying into baking the pie–paying a percentage of their tuition and fees and just not able to access it. Like I said before, these students are not looking for a handout; they’re looking to be treated like anyone else who pays tuition at one of our institutions.
CTLatinoNews: In your testimony (to the education committee), you mentioned start-up costs. Could these impede the process of extending institutional aid to the undocumented students?
Ojakian: My philosophy is to set a goal and then to figure out how to get it done. I believe there is some minimal cost to setting up the institutional aid program, but it is fair and equitable to do it to allow students to access a pot of money they are contributing to.
I believe in this proposal and we’ll figure out how to get it done. I am willing to engage in the conversation with policy makers on how to do this going forward, but I have no hesitancy in advocating strongly for it and implementing it. It should it become the law of the state. I will find a way, it is the right thing to do.
CTLatinoNews: Do you see more undocumented students coming into the two-year rather than the four-year schools?
Ojakian: It is hard to tell. I think each of our institutions offers a different approach to students. Maybe some students are ready to go to a four-year institution, that happen to be able to do that, so they apply and go to one of our four-year schools.
Some of our two-year colleges offer a different menu of choices for students, especially on where they live. It allows them, maybe, to go part-time; it allows to them to get job training. They can start at our two-year, then transfer to our four year [schools].
Our system is designed to really offer opportunity to middle income working families in Connecticut, so I think we have [undocumented] students attending all of our institutions right now.
CTLatinoNews: At the hearing there was a lot of testimony from students, especially from members of Connecticut Students for a Dream, which has been pushing hard for the aid change. What have you been personally hearing from students regarding the impact of their not being able to get institutional aid?
Ojakian: We have had conversations in this office with students and those advocates for the Dreamers about ways we can be more helpful and come together to a solution. In my previous role, as governor’s chief of staff, I had opportunities to meet with the same individuals when we were advocating for in-state tuition and when this concept of institutional aid first came up.
It just makes sense that a lot of our students, whether they are undocumented or not, are having a difficult time in obtaining an education in what we consider a normal period of time.
Because as we find out, anecdotally, life gets in the way, and this is no different for documented students; for undocumented students. The difference is, because they don’t have access to this financial aid, they are at a disadvantage, first to enroll in school and secondly stay in school and complete their course of study, whatever that might be, in a reasonable amount of time.
CTLatinoNews: Any sense of how many undocumented students are attending the state schools?
Ojakian: We don’t have those numbers; it’s something we are going to have a conversation about–how we get that information. Some of it has to do with them being undocumented, about self disclosure
Just in talking to students that have come up to me, I know that we do have (undocumented) students in our system, and I just think providing this opportunity would increase the number that attend our institutions.
CTLatinoNews: Do you have the capacity to take in more students?
Ojakian: Absolutely, we have the capacity to take in more students, not only to provide these students with an education, but it helps us in Connecticut with finding future workers for our state’s workforce.
But I think those are all secondary, to my mind, that this is the right thing to do because it provides a level playing field. It is equitable. These students are not looking for a handout, by any means. They are not eligible for federal financial aid; they are not eligible for Pell Grants; they are not eligible for other kinds of financial assistance. So, at the state, we have to specifically allow them to participate in the money that goes into institutional aid.
Just as I believed in strongly and supported the governor’s direction on in-state tuition, I believe this is the next step in that process to truly make our system just and equitable.
CTLatinoNews: How is the need-based financial aid determined?
Ojakian: Currently, need is determined by federal form (FAFSA), based on financial need. Undocumented students are not able to take advantage of this.
We, (the Office of Higher Education) would have to come up with a form that measures that need for the undocumented students. We would design it so we can really be able to capture who needs the aid.
CTLatinoNews: How about the impact on the administrators?
Ojakian: I am a big believer we can find ways to streamline some of this process, create the efficiencies we need through the system…this is something that we can do. People in my system are getting used to me saying we have to find a way to do this, and not just accepting because this is more of a burden, because we have not done this before. I am a big believer in saying ‘yes’ and then ‘let’s find a way to get it done.’