As the second half of the California DREAM Act — which would allow students who qualify for in-state tuition under AB 540 access to public financial aid for the first time — reaches Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, the topic of undocumented students has garnered mass media and public attention.
But although the bill carries enormous symbolic significance for many students, the DREAM Act would affect a relatively small number of those enrolled in California public higher education. And the majority of students who could benefit from the bills — contrary to popular belief — are actually not undocumented.
According to UC spokesperson Ricardo Vazquez, in the 2009-10 academic year, 2,157 of the 231,853 UC students qualified for in-state tuition under AB 540 across the entire UC system. Of this group, the UC Office of the President estimates that only 480 to 614 of these students were undocumented.
In the California Community Colleges system, the number of AB 540 students is much higher, according to Director of Communications Paige Dorr. However, AB 540 students still constitute a relatively small part of the student population — 1.3 percent of the 2.8 million students total for the 2009-10 academic year. For the California State University, the proportion of AB 540 to all other students is similar, according to Erik Fallis, CSU media relations specialist.
Both the community colleges and CSU do not estimate the number of undocumented students currently studying on their campuses.
AB 540 — which was enacted in October 2001 — qualifies these students for in-state tuition based on three main criteria:
- Attending an in-state high school for at least three years.
- Graduating from a California high school or receiving a high school equivalent degree.
- Not holding one of many nonimmigrant visas, as defined by federal law — which applies directly to undocumented students.
Furthermore, AB 540 also requires that undocumented students who meet these requirements certify that they are taking steps to legalize their immigration status or will do so as soon as they are eligible.
The UC Annual Report on AB 540 Tuition Exemptions for the 2008-09 academic year estimates that 30 percent of undergraduate students to whom the UC has granted in-state tuition under AB 540 are undocumented. The report estimates that less than 5 percent of the AB 540-filing graduate students are undocumented.
The majority of students who have benefited from receiving AB 540 status for the past decade at UC Berkeley have been Asian American students who are legal residents of the United States, according to the report.
But of all the students provided for under the DREAM Act, undocumented students have come to represent the bill in the public eye.
Jessica Rossoni covers higher education.