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At Claremont, more resources sought for migrant graduate students

Paying tuition is a struggle for graduate students who are in the U.S. illegally

Finding a way to pay for college wasn't easy for Iliana Perez when she applied in 2004. She came to the United States when she was 8 on a tourist visa and because she never became a citizen, she was ineligible for scholarships and government grants.

The Turlock resident received a scholarship to Fresno State University that did not take citizenship into account; she spent all four years there. But she had so much trouble finding financial aid for graduate school that she took out a private loan to attend the New School in New York City. She withdrew after one semester because she ran out of money.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Graduate students: In the June 11 California section, an article about financial aid policies for students without legal-resident status said that the enrollment at Claremont Graduate University was 22,000. It is 2,200.
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Perez, who was born in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, eventually found a private scholarship offered by Claremont Graduate University and enrolled in 2012; she is now pursuing a doctorate in education and a master's degree in economics.

Because of her experiences and those of other Claremont students, Perez, her classmates and faculty members are asking the campus to extend more financial aid toward graduate students who do not have legal status. They say they have fewer resources than undergraduate students in the same situation.

Schools that offer financial aid to undergraduates without legal status do not always have similar programs for older students. Santa Clara University, for example, has a scholarship fund to help four undergraduates and one transfer student who are not citizens, but graduate students are ineligible. At the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., graduate students are not eligible for need-based aid, although they could get funding from individual departments, a school spokeswoman said.

Even though exact figures are not available, many experts and advocates agree that graduate students have a harder time getting loans and scholarships because they do not qualify for federal student loans. In addition, they say that most of the attention on educational reform for immigrants has focused on undergraduates, at least for now.

"I would say at the undergraduate level there are systems in place that have been a huge success," said Denisse Rojas, director of Pre-Health Dreamers, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy and educational group. "In graduate school, the resources are very limited."

Advocates want Claremont to adopt something similar to a University of California fund that earmarked $5 million in 2013 to help undergraduate and graduate students who are in the U.S. illegally to stay in school.

Perez and others have spoken with Claremont administrators about adopting such a program and presented a proposal during the school's June trustee meeting. School leaders agreed to study the issue.

California is one of 16 states that grants in-state tuition at public colleges to undergraduates and graduate students without citizenship. State law also allows some students to receive state-based financial aid at public universities. The laws do not apply to private schools like Claremont.

Tuition at the 2,200-student graduate school can be up to $36,000 annually, depending on the graduate program.

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FOR THE RECORD

June 11, 7:25 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said the enrollment at Claremont Graduate University was 22,000. It is 2,200.

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President Obama signed an executive action in 2012 that shields some immigrants who do not have legal status from deportation and allows them to receive Social Security numbers. That action allowed Perez to get a teacher's assistant job at Claremont, which helped defray some of the cost of her education.

It's unclear how many people without legal status are attending colleges and universities. A 2010 report by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, estimated that 96,000 young adults without legal status held at least a two-year associate's degree; the group did not try to determine how many were in graduate school.

Experts say the numbers will grow because immigration reform has enabled more students without legal status to go to college.

"Graduate schools are just beginning to understand the issue," said Angelo Mathay, an associate policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute.

Perez has studied the effects of deportation on college-educated Mexican nationals, but she felt uncomfortable returning to her home country to do research, she said. She would have had to receive approval from federal officials, and she feared she would be unable to return to the U.S. if she went.

Instead, several other graduate students between July and October interviewed people in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey who had returned to the country either voluntarily or because they were deported.

The number of migrants who had returned to Mexico with higher education increased from 18% to 29%, according to the research, and the Claremont students found that many faced poor job prospects. The researchers found that nearly 80% of the young adults they interviewed worked at English-speaking call centers.

"It is a missed opportunity to capitalize on a major source of human capital," they wrote.

Perez said she felt lucky when she compared herself with those featured in the research.

"I've been extremely fortunate with the academic opportunities I've had and I feel extremely fortunate that I haven't been deported," she said. "If I had some bad luck, I could've been one" of those former students working in a call center.

jason.song@latimes.com

Twitter: @byjsong

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