A former owner of The Washington Post has joined a prominent Democratic fundraiser and former Republican Cabinet secretary to launch the nation’s largest college scholarship fund for students who entered the United States illegally when they were children.

Donald E. Graham has created “TheDream.US,” a $25 million fund that aims to award full-tuition college scholarships to 1,000 students in the next academic year.

“I’m not wise enough to know what is the right immigration policy for the United States of America,” said Graham, who contributed an undisclosed amount to the fund, as did his brother, Bill. “I know these students deserve a chance at higher education.”

While some private colleges offer scholarships to undocumented students and 17 states now allow them to receive in-state tuition rates at public colleges, undocumented students — “dreamers,” as they have become known — are not eligible for Pell grants and other types of federal financial aid.

Each year, an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools.

“I know these students deserve a chance at higher education,” Donald E. Graham said of his $25 million “TheDream.US” fund. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

“It seemed terribly unfair that literally everyone else in the [high school] class could get access to federal loans and, if low-income, could get Pell grants, and the dreamers couldn’t get a cent,” said Graham, who in 1999 founded the District of Columbia College Access Program, a nonprofit organization that helps D.C. high school students get into college and pay for it. Graham’s company sold The Post last year to Amazon.com founder Jeffrey P. Bezos.

Graham came up with the idea for the scholarship fund six months ago, after conversations with Henry R. Muñoz III, one of President Obama’s most successful Latino fundraisers and finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee, and Carlos Gutierrez, who served as commerce secretary under President George W. Bush.

“We were introduced by a mutual friend,” Muñoz said of Graham. “When I met him, he pulled up to my hotel driving not a terribly nice car, he had a plastic watch. I thought, is this guy for real? We spent the whole day talking about educational access [for dreamers] and what we could do. He called me after and said, ‘I’m serious about this.’ ”

It’s been easier raising money for the scholarship fund than for immigration reform, Gutierrez said. “People to whom I’ve spoken, primarily Republicans, former public servants or activists, when I explain this idea, they immediately say, ‘Yes, sign me up,’ ” he said. “People get it.”

The group has received grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Inter-American Development Bank, and Patty Stonesifer and Michael Kinsley, among others.

That’s enough to provide $25,000 each to 1,000 dreamers in the program’s first year to attend a small group of colleges that the organization has pre-
approved. The colleges are located in New York, Texas, Florida and the District. Several are community colleges and one is online: Mount Washington College, owned by Kaplan, part of Graham’s company, Graham Holdings.

“This is not a scholarship program for every dreamer. We do not have the money to pay a whole lot of people’s tuitions to highly selective colleges,” Graham said, noting that many elite private universities have scholarships for undocumented students. “Our mission is work-related programs at low cost but relatively high quality.”

The fund is designed for those who want to study nursing, teaching, computers and business, he said. A scholarship recipient who graduates from one of the community colleges with an associate degree can reapply for scholarship money to complete a bachelor’s degree at another school, said Candy Marshall, president of TheDream.US.

According to the Obama administration’s college scorecard, several of the group’s pre-
approved colleges reported relatively few students finishing degree programs on time.

At Bronx Community College in New York, for example, just 8 percent of full-time students graduated from the two-year school within three years, while 13.4 percent transferred.

Graham said that the scholarship recipients are more likely to defy those odds because dreamers are “extremely motivated.” He said that the pre-approved colleges agreed to provide the scholarship recipients with extra help, including a designated academic counselor.

“We’re not just about getting kids into college, we’re about getting students out of college,” Marshall said. “You could do this and just give them $25,000 to go to the college of their choice. But we don’t want to put students in situations where we’ve started them in college and they’re working three or four jobs to try to pay for the rest, and they don’t succeed.”

The fund has awarded scholarships to 28 dreamers, including Araceli Mendez, 21, who came to the United States with her parents from Mexico when she was 7. Mendez, who lives in Brooklyn, graduated from high school in 2010 and has spent three years cleaning homes to try to save enough money to attend college.

“I applied to college,” she said. “I did my application and got in and everything, but tuition was very expensive. I couldn’t go.”

With a scholarship from TheDream.US, Mendez started classes last week at Manhattan Community College. She wants to be a pediatric nurse or pediatrician.

“There’s no stopping me now,” she said. “It’s important to never stop dreaming. Go for your dreams, don’t let anything stand in your way, because everything’s possible.”