Until SCOTUS Acts, Financial Aid for DACA Students Largely Left Up to the States

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The spring was slated to be a consequential season for individuals in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — and that was before the health pandemic, which has now brought an added economic strain on the population. 

On top of waiting for a Supreme Court decision that will determine what, if any authority the Trump administration has to end the program — which was established by executive order under the Obama administration — DACA students pursuing higher education now must navigate how to receive financial aid in the wake of the novel coronavirus, since guidance from the Department of Education (ED) excluded them from receiving emergency grants under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. 

“What makes DACA recipients unique in this time right now is the added pressure from the Supreme Court case that's about to be decided on,” said Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, state and local policy manager for United We Dream. “Every week, we're just waiting for it with bated breath, and I think that having that decision looming over us on top of the life-threatening pandemic that's going on is definitely an added stress that no one needs right now.”

According to Macedo do Nascimento, should the Supreme Court side with the Trump administration and end the program outright, close to 700,000 individuals will immediately lose their protections and work authorizations, including more than 200,000 who are deemed essential workers. 

“That'll have big consequences, not just for us and our families and our communities, but for the country in general,” Macedo do Nascimento said.

Macedo do Nascimento said that while schools can pull from private funds to help DACA students who have been excluded from the emergency aid provided in the CARES Act, they have additional ways to offer assistance. 

“Schools can prioritize DACA or undocumented students who are not able to go home, they can open up their dorms for them, they can also create protocols about immigration enforcement presence on their campuses to make sure that the students are protected from from being picked up on campuses,” Macedo do Nascimento said. 

Aside from direct financial aid, schools can also provide health resources — such as counselors and therapists well-versed in immigration issues — which the undocumented community is in partiucluar need of as their economic outlook is severly impacted by the pandemic, she said.

Recently NASFAA joined a number of higher education groups in creating a new website, “Remember the Dreamers,” which is aimed at providing information and resources for students and institutions — including mental health resources — on what efforts are being made to help DACA students.

David A. Ortiz, senior vice president for operations at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), said in the meantime many states are also looking to identify new funding systems to assist the undocumented community during the pandemic. 

“I think [colleges and universities] are all committed to being equitable in their treatment and distribution of funds to help DACA students, but they have to be creative,” he said. “Most of them are really looking at private dollars.”

Ortiz said that schools are largely making their best effort in trying to distribute private funds that have previously been earmarked for a cataclysmic event, but that funding mechanisms requiring outreach to new foundations can require a lot of institutional resources.  

“All that takes time, and as you can tell by the state of matters today, time isn't on our side,” he said. “Those funds are needed now, and private funding can take some time.”

Had ED been more lenient in its guidance of allocating funding provided by the CARES Act, Ortiz said schools would have easily utilized those funds for their DACA populations.

“I think that they would have rushed to provide those funds to these students. And I think that would have been across the board,” Ortiz said. “DACA and undocumented students represent some of the neediest students on college campuses. Not only is there financial need for these students, there's also an emotional toll that some of these students are undertaking.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 Colorado State University, for example, has handed out $1,500 grants to 400 students not included in the federal CARES Act, including 218 undocumented individuals. And, according to The Denver Post, the Metropolitan State University of Denver — which enrolls the most undocumented students in Colorado — is raising $300,000 specifically targeted toward its “Dreamer” population.

Recently the California Community Colleges system filed a lawsuit against ED in response to its guidance for emergency grant distribution, alleging ED’s reasoning for limiting funds to Title IV-eligible students was arbitrary and capricious. The lawsuit noted that in California alone, the guidance would exclude more than 800,000 community college students, including veterans, low-income students, students with disabilities, and those training for health services careers.

Ortiz said he is hopeful that if the Supreme Court were to issue a ruling that protected the DACA program that the student population would have an easier time accessing federal aid. 

“A ruling by the Supreme Court in supporting the DACA program would send a clear message to Congress and the Department of Education that this is a valued community of students and contributors to our society,” Ortiz said. “I would hope [this decision] would then lead to an additional stimulus package or federal funding that would move through Congress to include language that would support undocumented students and DACA students as recipients of future aid.”

At the state level, approaches for supporting DACA students can vary, and while some — such as Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas — operate on an institution-by-institution basis, others, such as California, have a more coordinated statewide approach, Ortiz said.

California was largely able to provide relief to DACA students due to state laws, particularly the California DREAM Act, which allows institutions of higher education to support undocumented students on a statewide basis.

Shawn Brick, director of student financial support for the University of California (UC) system, said the state law applies to all students in the country illegally — not just DACA recipients. He noted that about 40% of the state’s DREAM Act students also have DACA authorization, and nearly all of those students qualify to receive state-based aid.

On top of the state-based funds, the university can provide its own aid to students who are deemed ineligible to receive CARES Act emergency grants, Brick said. Another program that is accessible to DACA students, who are not eligible to take out federal student loans, is the California DREAM Loan Program, which is funded by the state and UC and modeled after the federal Direct Loan Program.

“We're fortunate that we have these other tools to help students,” Brick said.

While California has access to additional state-based tools, Brick said he is concerned about the implications of a Supreme Court ruling on DACA, and said it will be important to ensure students fully understand the implications.

“[We want] to make sure that they understand that [a Supreme Court decision] doesn't change the other things that they're eligible for,” Brick said. “If they lose their DACA status, they'll still be able to get California state grants, they'll still be able to receive University of California grants, and they'll still be able to receive that dream.”

While the DACA community looks to find additional assistance for themselves their presence on college campuses have provided their institutions with aid.

“There's a there's a bitter and ironic twist that undocumented students and their enrollment at the institutions contributed to the the funding that was available to those institutions, and it's ironic that the students who are contributing to the headcount and to the enrollment are now not having access to those funds,” Ortiz said. “It kind of perplexes me in one way, and that contradiction and that irony is not lost on me.”


Publication Date: 5/18/2020

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