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District bill could expand college access for undocumented students

A new D.C. Council proposal would create a grant program for undocumented students in the District who want to attend college

A new D.C. Council proposal would create a grant program for undocumented students in the District who want to attend college. (Keith Lane for The Washington Post)
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A group of D.C. Council members has introduced legislation that could help make college more affordable for the District’s undocumented high-schoolers.

Spearheaded by council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large), the proposed “DC Advancing College Hopes for Immigrants’ Education and Vocational Enrichment Scholarship” — or DC ACHIEVES — Establishment Act would provide grants to high school graduates who do not have U.S. citizenship. Undocumented students, unlike their peers, are ineligible for federal financial aid and have limited access to state aid programs.

“These are students who are graduating salutatorian or valedictorian and, unfortunately, just had a very difficult time continuing with their higher education pursuits because of the cost,” Henderson said. “If employers are saying a bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma, then I think it’s incumbent upon us as the public to ensure that our students are able to obtain what we would call a public good.”

The legislation is co-sponsored by council members Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large).

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The proposal would allocate about $17,000 per student. The figure is equivalent to the money a student would have received from the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG) — the well-known federally funded grant program that helps city students attend college — and from a federal Pell grant. Undocumented students are currently not eligible for either program.

The District’s public schools do not collect citizenship information, but Henderson estimates there are between 3,000 and 4,000 undocumented students in the system.

“Frankly, in my mind, it’s not a lot of money when you look at how it could truly change the life of a young person,” Henderson said. She added that the council passed legislation in 2014 that would have provided tuition assistance to District students, regardless of citizenship, who met certain income and residency requirements. The measure, however, was left unfunded following concerns about how it would affect federal support for DCTAG.

“But the need didn’t go away,” Henderson said.

An estimated 840,000 undocumented immigrants between the ages of 18 and 24 were living in the United States as of 2018, according to a 2021 report from the Department of Homeland Security. Just 18 states and the District provide those students with access to in-state tuition and some financial aid or scholarships, data from the Higher Ed Immigration Portal shows. Other states also offer access to in-state tuition or financial aid.

Undocumented students in the District can receive financial aid to attend the city’s sole public institution, the University of the District of Columbia.

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At schools such as Trinity Washington University, where about 10 percent of students are undocumented, the campus shoulders much of the cost to attend, said Patricia McGuire, the university’s president. Many students receive scholarships from TheDream.Us — the country’s largest college access program for undocumented students shielded from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, policy — but still arrive on campus with “great need,” McGuire said.

“We do the best we can, but there comes a point where our students need additional help,” McGuire said. Federal coronavirus relief funding allowed the university to disburse emergency grants to help all students cover their tuition costs, as well as their basic needs. With money from the American Rescue Plan, the university even paid off outstanding balances for more than 500 students. But that money will run out. “There needs to be other forms of support for these students,” McGuire said.

President Biden’s $2 trillion Build Back Better agenda offered hope in a provision that would open financial aid eligibility to undocumented students. But it remains unclear whether the plan, in its current form, will garner enough support to pass in the Senate.

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“I think the city knows and would certainly realize that investing in undocumented students is a great thing for the city and the city’s future,” McGuire said. “These are students that are as American as anybody.”