Each year, California invites students who are in the country without legal permission to apply for the same financial aid packages available to others. But officials once again are concerned that fears are keeping those they want to help from seeking the funding.
The deadline to apply for aid through the California Dream Act is March 2, just about two weeks away
As of Monday, 19,141 students had applied. That's a little more than half of last year's total.
"We're 20,000 students behind," said Lupita Cortez Alcalá, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, the organization that administers state financial aid.
College counselors and Cortez Alcalá cite immigrant families' increasing distrust of the government. Students are especially concerned about the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which hangs in the balance.
"There's rumors about ICE raids all the time — some unfounded and some maybe founded," said Jane Slater, a teacher at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, Calif., who also advises a club for students who are in the country without legal permission. "The headlines about immigration make people feel like they're really in the spotlight. Kids are more afraid for their families than they are for themselves."
Some people also confuse the California Dream Act (CADA) with DACA — though Cortez Alcalá said state officials have tried to dispel the misconception.
Still, the uncertain status of DACA may keep some students from enrolling in college, she said. DACA allows them to study and work without fear of deportation.
Aid available to students who meet certain criteria includes private scholarships funded through public universities, state administered financial aid, university grants, community college fee waivers and Cal Grants.
Applications dipped last year as well, until state officials sounded the alarm. Ultimately, after weeks of advocacy and "cash for college" events to spread the word, 36,127 applications came in — slightly more than the year before.
This year, advocates enlisted the help of rapper DJ Khaled, who appears in a public service announcement, telling young people how to "secure the bag" so they can pay for college.
At Sequoia High, Slater said that she has been very hands-on, making sure all eligible high school seniors apply.
One of them, Yohana Ramirez, 18, said she wants to go to UC Merced and become a surgeon. Her family moved here from Mexico when she was 3.
"Growing up, I knew I wasn't born here, but I didn't know what it means," she said. "I always assumed it was just a different point of origin — but I didn't think it would impact me in school."
When she heard President Trump speak about immigration and learned that DACA was in jeopardy, she said, "I was scared, I was panicking — about my family getting deported, with or without me…. I'm still kind of scared, but I'm just trying to keep my head up and keep pushing forward with my dreams, goals and aspirations."
Ramirez learned about the California scholarships at a summit for "Dreamers." Her mother was afraid of sending personal information to the government. But when Ramirez explained the program's benefits, she received her family's blessing to apply.
College counselors at many high schools may be too overwhelmed to spread the word about applying for the aid as well as Slater has.
A report released this month by the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling found that in the 2014-15 school year, California had one of the nation's highest student-to-counselor ratios, at 760 students for every counselor.
David Marks, a counselor at Sacramento Charter High School, said some counselors may inform students about the aid and leave it at that, which might not be enough.
"The counselors don't have a lot of time," he said. "They'll just tell students to do it. It takes a lot of effort to double-check."
10:10 a.m.: This article was updated with a video of DJ Khaled's public service announcement, which was released Tuesday.