Educating undocumented students is an important reflection of our public mission in economically-challenging times

Patricia Kim/Staff

With the passage of AB 540 in 2001, the state of California allowed any students who had spent at least three years in a California secondary school, graduated and earned admission to college to be treated as Californians paying resident tuition. The legislators responsible for AB 540 recognized that many undocumented students who are products of California’s education system were brought here as young children not knowing that they did not have proper legal status. These talented and ambitious young people have earned the opportunity to attend college and deserve to be treated justly and fairly.

However, while enabling undocumented students to pursue a public education In California, the Legislature stopped short of making any provision for financial aid, without which the expenses of attending are too onerous for many. UC Berkeley’s tuition is $11,200, and the total cost of attending is as much as $32,600 per year. This is insurmountable for the vast majority of undocumented students. By comparison, their fellow California residents from families with low incomes who qualify for aid are required to contribute as little as $8,000 to their education through work-study and loans.

Thanks to the leadership of Assemblymember Gil Cedillo, two bills, AB 130 and AB 131, were put forward in the Legislature that would allow financial support for undocumented students.

I personally traveled to Sacramento to testify on behalf of both bills with Mr. Cedillo and witnessed our legislators moved by the testimony of many undocumented students as they talked about their hopes and dreams for higher education and the hardships and challenges that they encountered. The principles behind AB 130 and 131 reflect UC Berkeley’s institutional identity as an engine of social and economic mobility, providing access and affordability that allows promising students of exceptional caliber to pursue higher education.

AB 130 was recently passed and signed into law by Gov. Brown. It enables all students who qualify for nonresident tuition exemption to be eligible to compete for scholarships that are paid for with private donor funds awarded by the university, beginning on Jan. 1, 2012. I have already made an approach for private support to a foundation that is a leader in social justice issues and believes in enabling all people to reach their full potential, as do we at UC Berkeley.

AB 131, which was passed by the legislature and is on its way to Gov. Brown’s desk, will further level the playing field by making undocumented students eligible for state funding such as Cal Grants, effective January 2013. If the bill is enacted, as we have every reason to believe that it will UC estimates that approximately 800 undergraduate students eligible under AB 540 would meet the requirements for participation in the Cal Grant Entitlement program. While it is impossible to determine exactly how many undocumented students who are eligible for need-based financial aid attend UC Berkeley, our best estimates indicate that we have approximately 60.

California can take the lead in helping to reframe the national conversation on investing in undocumented students. Rather than representing a financial loss for the state, these students will have the opportunity to contribute to the economic and social vitality of California. Supporters of AB 540 are exploring ways in which these students, once they graduate, can find legal employment, thereby ensuring that they are integrated into California’s professional community, are able to put their degrees to good use and are one step closer to citizenship. I recently had the opportunity to speak to President Obama directly about the DREAM Act. He emphasized that California cannot afford to waste one single talented person and that as a nation, we must not neglect individuals who can become tremendous assets to the United States.

UC Berkeley has been a state and national leader in addressing issues of equity, access and affordability. That tradition is only strengthened in times of economic hardship — we have more low-income students attending UC Berkeley today than at any time in our history. We are proud of our public mission to serve all Californians, including helping those talented, economically disadvantaged undocumented students who through their merit have earned a place at UC Berkeley.

Robert J. Birgeneau is the chancellor of UC Berkeley.