Politics & Government

Immigrant students must get in line for state college aid

With the governor’s signing of the Real Hope Act earlier this week, the state might have made a bigger promise of college financial aid than it can keep, at least immediately.

The legislation was signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Jay Inslee as dozens of students watched. The law makes students brought to the country illegally as children eligible for state need grants to attend colleges and universities.

The Real Hope Act, nearly identical to the better-known state Dream Act that had passed the House, makes Washington the fourth state to allow students who are in the country illegally to receive financial aid awarded from state grants.

One problem: Washington’s state need grant program is already underfunded by millions of dollars.

The new law anticipates that state budget writers will allocate another $5 million for the program to account for the newly eligible students. But state officials don’t know how many students will apply under the new eligibility.

In the 2012-13 school year, 811 students without legal immigration status took advantage of an earlier state law permitting them to pay in-state tuition rates. Real Hope supporters expect more students to enroll in school and come forward for assistance now that state financial aid is also available to them.

The extra $5 million envisioned by the law is estimated to cover the cost of education for 1,250 students. But they will be joining an already long line for aid. In the 2012-13 school year, the state provided need grants to 74,000 students. The same year, 32,000 eligible students went without aid.

The Legislature set aside $303 million for the state need grant for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, but officials say that’s not enough.

“To fully fund the state need grant would require an additional $135 million,” said Rachelle Sharpe, director of student financial assistance at the Washington Student Achievement Council.

Another catch for Real Hope students, who are not allowed to complete the federal financial aid form due to their immigration status: The special application for state need grants won’t be ready for a few weeks, and deadlines for priority consideration for financial aid at four-year institutions will have already passed.

Deadlines for two-year community and technical colleges range from March to July, Sharpe said. Funds for two-year colleges tend not to be exhausted until July, but four-year universities, such as the University of Washington, disperse funds sooner.

Students waiting to apply for the state need grant can apply for admission to institutions and talk with financial aid advisers. Sharpe said the council is encouraging the schools to try to provide equitable access for newly eligible students.

“It’s first come, first serve,” Sharpe said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the day after (the priority consideration date) funding is gone.”

Audrey, a University of Washington Tacoma student who asked that his last name not be used because he and his family are in the country illegally, is one of the students who will sign up as soon as the form is available. Officials said it should be available in April.

Born in Mexico City, Audrey was brought to the United States at age 10 by his parents. Now 20, Audrey and his family moved to the Puget Sound area five years ago, in the wake of anti-immigration laws in Alabama.

“My family really wanted to help me and my sister go to college,” Audrey said.

Audrey receives some scholarships that help pay for his tuition, but works part-time to cover the rest. Working limits the amount of time he can spend studying for his courses in computer science. He said that although the new law doesn’t guarantee he will have access to a state need grant, it gives him hope.

“It’s not a given that you can have it but in a way it’s a relief,” Audrey said. “I know there’s a possibility to apply for some financial help.”

Officials don’t expect everyone to be as aware of the new assistance as Audrey, so there may not be a large influx of Real Hope applicants in the first year.

“It’s going to take time to spread the word,” Sharpe said.

How to qualify

The Washington Student Achievement Council created readysetgrad.org/hope to help students brought to the country illegally understand their options with the passage of the Real Hope Act.

To qualify under the new law, students must have come to the U.S. before the age of 16, attended for at least a year and graduated from a Washington state high school, and lived in the state for at least three years before receiving a high school diploma.

Annaliese Davis: 360-943-7240 annaliese.davis @thenewstribune.com