Let all students dream

When a California student is handed a high school diploma at graduation, no one asks if they are a citizen, legal resident or undocumented graduate. When the state sets aside money for the Cal Grants they look at the size of the potential applicant pool to determine funding needs, not legal status.

In a recent editorial, the Los Angeles Times did not tell the full story of how financial aid is awarded in our state and also on my bill, the California Dream Act (SB 160) [pdf].

The Times suggested that state financial aid dollars granted to undocumented students come at the expense of students with legal status and that for this reason SB 160 was unacceptable. The vast majority of new student applicants benefiting from SB 160 would qualify for the Cal Grant High School Entitlement Award and there is no displacement of students in this program. In fact, the program is underutilized.

The High School Entitlement program is the largest Cal Grant program, and is guaranteed to every graduating high school student who meets rigorous academic eligibility requirements and demonstrates financial need. Of the 145,185 applicants for a High School Entitlement Award last year not one applicant was turned away for lack of state funds. More likely applicants are not matched with funds due to errors or missing information on the application form, or for not meeting financial criteria.

You might say there are too few applicants for these Entitlement grants. Although the program receives 100% annual funding, moneys go unused in some years. According to Department of Finance and California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) reports, during the previous two academic years only 64% of allocated grants were awarded. Many students are not aware of the statute on Entitlement grants, and allotted funds go unclaimed.

Because the state determines the size of the applicant pool for the Entitlement grants based on the number of graduating seniors, and not legal status, undocumented students are accounted for in the allocated grants. However they are unable to use the federal application form so their portion of the allotted grants goes unfulfilled as well. There are so few students participating in the Entitlement program that the CSAC maintains an aggressive campaign to entice students to complete the application.

The Times editorial claims that SB 160 might further distress the Cal Grant Competitive Award program. The Competitive Awards are a smaller program which targets older, non-traditional students, with slightly lower academic achievement. There is a statutory cap or limit on the number of Competitive grants provided; however any additional students eligible for this program as a result of SB 160 would be finite and very limited in scope.

Finally, I'd like to address the misperception or misunderstanding related to existing law. Federal law provides states the authority to issue non-federal student aid to undocumented students. Because California has not passed a specific law on the issue, dispersing funds falls within a legal grey area. While there are some private scholarship funds available which do not require proof of legal status, as noted by the Times, there is not a legal statute or protocol enabling the institution to release these funds to undocumented recipients. Many private scholarship funds never make it to students. SB 160 would resolve this matter, provide a specific statute, and thereby expand access to financial aid dollars.

Increased access to education and workforce development is why CSAC, the University of California and California State University systems, the Los Angeles and San Francisco Chambers of Commerce and numerous community colleges support the California Dream Act. The proposal clearly states that one student will not have an advantage over another student, a concept referred to as "equal access."

California needs more college applicants, more college graduates, not fewer. In a report released Wednesday, "Can California Import Enough College Graduates?", the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) noted that at current rates, the state is not capable of producing enough college graduates to meet future economic demands. The report suggests that migration of college-educated workers from other states and countries alone will not fill our need. The authors advise that the state has a role in "encouraging and enabling" Californians to obtain degrees and urges timely action, "of all the times to make an effort to increase educational attainment, doing so now may be particularly advantageous and can lead to better economic opportunities for Californians and possibly better outcomes for the state."

In closing, I'd suggest the Times assertion that awarding financial aid to undocumented students, "amounts to saying there's no reason to obtain legal residency in the first place" misses the point. Given the academic and business community's support for SB 160 and PPIC's analysis of the need for more college-educated workers in our state, the more mainstream opinion seems to focus on economic benefits. Distributing financial aid to our best and brightest students is not a matter of immigration policy; it's an investment to secure our economic prosperity. Passage of the California Dream Act does not place one student's future above another student's future; it opens the door for all students.

State Sen. Gilbert Cedillo represents California's 22nd district.

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