Undocumented Students Ask Institutions for Equal Rights

By Danny Klain
This first appeared on genprogress.org

College used to be the clincher: once you finished high school, if you worked hard enough and put in the hours, you would get into college, setting yourself up for success in life.  Today, college is not so much the goal but the standard. If you want a job that brings financial security, college is a necessity—and a norm.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to attend college is not equal for all. For students who are undocumented immigrants, the process to attend college requires jumping through even more hoops than the average student.  When applying to college undocumented students cannot receive any form of federal financial aid. Furthermore, some states prohibit undocumented students from receiving state financial aid, leaving undocumented students without many sources of aid. Left with few sources to pay for tuition, undocumented students often turn to private loans—which have high interest rates, and are also often out of reach for undocumented students. And undocumented students have lots of tuition to pay: undocumented students not only are barred from accessing state and federal financial aid, they’re often required to pay out-of-state tuition costs, even if they’ve lived in the state since childhood. Having to pay a higher principle cost for college and facing that challenge with little to no financial assistance, undocumented students have to take out larger loan amounts that are incredibly difficult for any individual to pay off. The student debt that undocumented students must take on affects their lives long after graduation.

Moreover, some states—including Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina—have taken a more blatant approach to restricting undocumented individuals’ ability to access a college education. These states have imposed laws banning undocumented students from attending some or all of their state’s public colleges and universities. Though many universities are blocking undocumented students from higher education, one school in Georgia is doing just the opposite. Freedom University (FU), an unaccredited school based in Atlanta, gives 35-40 undocumented students the opportunity to learn about the college application process and find ways to pursue a degree while continuing to grow as people. Emiko Soltis, executive director of Freedom University, said the university offers college application help in the fall, art courses, and an emphasis on student activism and leadership.

Soltis, who also teaches at Freedom University as a professor, says the school is a “very important space for [the students’] well-being.” Freedom University’s success lies just as much in its tangible offerings, like college and scholarship application help, as its intangible ones—namely, providing a space for undocumented students to feel comfortable and safe.  “Everyone here is undocumented and it’s not a big deal,” Soltis told Generation Progress. This shared experience of being undocumented allows the students not to worry or to hide but rather feel a part of a greater community, which some would say is a crucial experience to prepare for college.

Though much of conversation surrounding tuition equity has focused on public universities, Soltis emphasized that Freedom University is making significant progress with private universities. In contrast to public universities, Soltis says, “private universities have a lot of power because they have control of their policies that they can change.”

Underlying this point, Freedom University recently played a major role in Atlanta-based Emory University’s decision to offer private, need-based aid to undocumented students. Freedom University works with many private colleges across the country, like Smith College.  Despite this progress, Soltis points out, there’s still much work to be done: “On a macro-scale [these bans are] affecting young people of color in the South, allowing them to work low-wage jobs but not vote or receive higher education…leaving them stuck in a socioeconomic class.”

While Freedom University is clearly making strides, Soltis is right that the issue of equal access to education for all is still very much unsolved.  When undocumented students cannot afford to pay for college due to laws that exclude them from aid, and are forced to take on burdening amounts of student debt, the opportunity to access a college education no longer exists. This is why we need to stand united with undocumented students to ensure equal access to a college education for all. Today, April 7, is National Institutions Coming Out Day, a day dedicated for institutions, both public and private, to come out and start to provide financial aid for undocumented students across the country. As a show of our support, we have compiled a list of scholarships for which undocumented students are eligible.

If you are an undocumented student looking for ways to pay for college, you can find that list here. If an undocumented student works hard throughout high school and is qualified, then they deserve the right to access higher education, just like any other student would. So today, we ask institutions to come out and support undocumented students and provide them the opportunities that are becoming an expected norm in the workforce and fair opportunities for higher education.

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