DREAM Act implementation secures state aid for undocumented students

Jesus Chavez is a fourth-year UC Berkeley student affected by the DREAM Act legislation.

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The implementation of the second bill of the California DREAM Act in January has made millions of dollars in state funding for financial aid available to undocumented students.

The DREAM Act’s AB 131 allows undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition under AB 540 to apply for need-based financial aid such as Cal Grants, greatly increasing access to public higher education for California’s approximately 25,000 annual undocumented high school graduates.

Patti Colston, a public information officer for the Student Aid Commission, said that she expected about $19.5 million in Cal Grants to be awarded to undocumented students from a pool of about $1.7 billion in available funding. This significantly bolsters financial aid opportunities for undocumented students, which since 2012 have also included private university scholarships and university grants.

The DREAM Act has been increasing access to financial aid for undocumented students since granting them eligibility for privately funded university scholarships in 2012 and is a critical asset for undocumented students whose accessibility to public higher education has been limited.

According to Meng So, director of UC Berkeley’s Undocumented Students Program, the DREAM Act aims to allow undocumented students to drop their part-time jobs to focus on academics.

“It’s not just the scholarships but the holistic support services Berkeley offers,” So said, describing the accommodations the campus makes to ensure the success of undocumented students, which include the Dream Lending Library, free legal services, emergency grants and financial aid workshops.

Still, the act’s annual aid cap of $12,192 makes it necessary for its beneficiaries to secure additional sources of financial aid to account for the other costs of attending college — such as books, health insurance, and room and board.

Jesus Chavez, a fourth-year social welfare major and undocumented student, reflected on the uncertainty that has defined the struggle to finance his education.

“My family came to the United States 18 years ago, when I was 3,” he said. “In high school, it was expected that my siblings and I would go to college, because we were very smart. But from the beginning, I couldn’t rely on my family — they had a hard enough time on their own.”

Chavez navigated multiple channels of financial aid and worked multiple jobs in his free time to support his college education but still found his registration blocked in his junior year after he fell $3,500 short. Only a well-timed stipend of $4,000 allowed him to continue his studies until the DREAM Act kicked in, providing Chavez a more stable source of financial aid.

But Chavez insisted that he was fortunate to be an undocumented student at UC Berkeley, with its welcoming environment, network of services and ally in Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.

“They have helped me a lot and still help.” Chavez said. “Berkeley is one of the leading universities, and undocumented students here are privileged compared to undocumented students at other schools.”

Jeremy Gordon covers higher education. Contact him at [email protected].