By Doug Maine CTLatinoNews.com
About 75 energized members of Connecticut Students for a Dream rallied last week at the Center for Latino Progress in Hartford after representatives of the group, also known as C4D, filed a rule-making petition formally requesting that the state Office of Higher Education, Board of Regents and Board of Trustees open up institutional financial aid to undocumented students in the state’s public colleges and universities.
For Junior Sierra, a high school junior from Norwalk, who came to the US at age 6, like many others who spoke at the event, this change they say will remove a major roadblock they’ve faced in their efforts to get an affordable college education. Sierra, said, “I, like thousands of other students, am being denied equal opportunity to a college education. We want to end the barriers that prevent high-achieving students from achieving their potential.” In a citywide science fair, Sierra completed a project that was deemed “Best in the Fair,” and later made strong showings in other academic competitions, earning a $20,000 scholarship from Quinnipiac University that he won’t be able to collect without the rule change that C4D is seeking.
“This is really my only opportunity to go to college, so I’m really pursuing it,” Sierra said.
Board of Regents regulations currently require that 15 percent of tuition revenue (payments by all students) be used as need-based aid to students. Undocumented students contribute to this pool of funds used for institutional aid, but they cannot receive the aid provided, which is unfair and bad for the state, C4D argues.
The petition formally requests that the state bar state universities, colleges and the University of Connecticut from denying aid based on immigration status and asks that the Board of Regents of the Office of Higher Education implement a fair application process that would allow undocumented students to apply for institutional financial aid without the use of a Social Security number.
Also, sharing her experiences, Faye Phillip, 25, of Stamford, said she sees the fight to change the rules as just another step that has to be taken before she can achieve her goals. “It’s a dream of mine to graduate from college, so I know that I will.”
Addressing group members, supporters and members of the press, she lamented the fact that one out of every six undocumented students drop out of high school, many discouraged because they will never be able to attend college. But she also celebrated the growth of the state’s Dream organization. “Five years ago, I was one of seven. Now I look around and see 75 people in the room,” Phillip said.
Phillip, who came to the US from Trinidad & Tobago when she was 10, was a good student in high school. One day, “when my guidance counselor saw me, she said, ‘why aren’t you applying to college?’ They didn’t know about the state policy…She tried to help me.” She attended a community college briefly and still hopes to eventually earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Though she was majoring in accounting previously, her more recent involvement in C4D has Phillip thinking about other possibilities.
Looking for an administrative solution – a long journey
This isn’t the group’s first attempt at eliminating the barriers that keep undocumented students from receiving institutional aid. “Last year we tried the legislative way and our bill was stuck in committee,” Lucas Codognolla, C4D’s lead coordinator, said. “This year we’re trying the administrative way.”
Although the battle for the rights of undocumented students extends far beyond Connecticut, “we can have victories on the state level as well,” he said.
“I’m tired of seeing students with so much potential drop out of college or work three jobs while they go to college,” Codognolla said.
C4D is represented by Yale University’s Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization, which links law students with individuals and organizations in need of legal help who cannot afford private attorneys.
Irina Anta, a Yale Law student working with the group, said the institutional aid is distributed based on the need analysis of the FAFSA (Free Application for Financial Student Aid) forms submitted by the families of college applicants. Undocumented students and their families cannot complete the form because they don’t have Social Security numbers.
“Nothing in the regulations prevents the undocumented students from receiving the aid,” Anta said.
“Informally, college financial aid officers feel they don’t have the authority to issue financial aid to undocumented students,” because of the state policy.
Asked whether a lawsuit would be possible if the rule change were rejected, Anta said, “the board has 30 days to act on the petition, and there is judicial review available,” to parties dissatisfied with their decision.
Legislation passed in 2011 enables qualified undocumented students – those brought to this country as children — with access to in-state tuition rates, but according to C4D, only about 1,000 undocumented students are currently attending two- and four-year colleges in Connecticut.
Nationally, out of about 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school each year, only about 5,000 go to college, Codognolla said.
As the rally ended, C4D members were preparing to drive from the Center for Latino Progress, on Hartford’s Park Street, to the Board of Regents’ offices, on Woodland Street in the city’s Asylum Hill neighborhood, to hand-deliver more than 2,000 signatures and letters of support signed by more than 50 organizations, 40 college faculty members and 15 state legislators, demanding that the board take action on the rule change.
“This has been a long journey,” Carolina Bortolleto, C4D’s college access program coordinator, said. “Over the years we have been in touch with the board of regents. We know the board of regents has the power to make the change, but we need to make some noise.”