CHICAGO — More than two years after Chicago launched a program that offers a swath of high school students a free ride at its community colleges, city officials are touting their growing list of students moving on to four-year universities with two years of college credit and not a dollar in debt.
Yet another, more subtle, trend has emerged from the program known as the Star Scholarship: Chicago’s junior colleges have become an extraordinarily popular spot for high-achieving but cash-strapped undocumented immigrants to study.
Financial aid data reviewed by USA TODAY shows that more than one out of five of the 3,015 Star Scholarship winners who enrolled at the city colleges this fall were directed to fill out an alternative to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) because they were ineligible to apply for federal aid — which requires that students be U.S. citizens, permanent residents or other eligible non-citizen residents such as asylum grantees.
“If it weren’t for this, I don’t know what I would have done,” said Paulina Rosales, 21, a scholarship winner and undocumented immigrant, who for now, is permitted to live in the U.S. through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). “There is no way I would have been able to afford college without this scholarship.”
City Colleges of Chicago officials say they don’t track the number of undocumented immigrants attending Chicago’s seven community colleges. But the significant proportion of undocumented immigrants who have won the scholarship is reflected by the number of students who reported they were ineligible for federal aid and filled out the alternative financial aid form.
The scholarship pays for tuition and textbook fees for any Chicago public school student who graduates high school with a B average and demonstrates proficiency on a college entrance exam.
The nation’s third-largest city is among several municipalities, as well as the state of Tennessee, that have taken steps in recent years to offer free community college to at least some of its students as higher education costs soar.
What’s unique about Chicago’s program is that the city insisted on allowing undocumented immigrants the same chance at the publicly funded scholarship as their U.S. citizen and Green Card-holding classmates.
The emergence of the program as a salve for young undocumented immigrants comes amid President Trump’s vow to tighten immigration laws, wind down DACA and demand that big cities work with his administration to crack down on illegal immigration.
‘Last dollar’ program
Chicago’s scholarship is a “last dollar” program, meaning students are required to submit a FAFSA — if eligible — so that any federal financial aid could be applied before the city issues its tuition and book fee waiver. A similar percentage of the scholarship winners who enrolled in the previous two years of the program — 21% for 2016-17 school year and 24% for 2015-16 — also reported they were ineligible for federal aid and filled out Chicago’s alternative financial aid form, according to the data.
The college affordability crunch for undocumented students like Rosales, who was among the first class of scholarship winners and is now working toward her bachelors’ degree, is a common plight for the nation’s roughly 800,000 young immigrants living in the country under temporary permits through DACA.
The Obama-era program created via executive action was designed to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. While it has given beneficiaries a provisional status to live, work and study in the U.S., it doesn’t put young undocumented immigrants on the same footing as their U.S.-born or documented immigrant peers when it comes to financial aid.
Only a half dozen states — California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas and Washington — currently allow undocumented students to receive state-funded financial aid, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eighteen states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition fees, according to the NCSL.
Chicago and the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, have been in the thick of the fight between Democrats and the Trump administration as the president has pushed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and vowed to withhold federal public safety funds from cities that limit local law enforcement involvement with federal authorities on immigration matters. Last month, Emanuel’s administration won a nationwide injunction in federal court preventing Trump from withholding public safety funding from sanctuary cities.
More: Trump’s crackdown on ‘sanctuary cities’ blocked nationwide
More: Trump winds down DACA program for undocumented immigrants, gives Congress 6 months to act
Central to creating the free community college scholarship in the city — which was launched before Trump won election — was the notion that any Chicago student who worked to get good grades should be able to get some post-high school education regardless of their families’ financial status, Emanuel said.
With that in mind, Emanuel — whose grandfather was born in Moldova and father was born in Israel — said it would have run counter to the spirit of the scholarship to exclude undocumented students.
“I launched this with my fundamental belief that we live in a time where you earn what you learn,” said Emanuel, who served as chief of staff to President Obama. “I could not in good conscience as the son and grandson of immigrants, and the mayor of a city with all its diversity, say that DREAMers aren’t part of this.”
Emanuel says he hasn’t heard dissent from Chicagoans for using taxpayer money on scholarships that go to undocumented immigrants. More than 5,500 Chicago public school students —including 1,150 students who reported they were ineligible to apply for federal aid —were awarded about $9.4 million in scholarships over the last two school years.
Faith Smith, a resident on the city’s Northwest Side who sent her college-aged son to Catholic school, said that she doesn’t begrudge Emanuel including undocumented residents in the scholarship program. But she questioned how Emanuel could couch the decision as one based on fairness when parochial students living in the city aren’t eligible for the scholarship.
“If you’re going to give it to undocumented kids, why shouldn’t parochial kids be able to get it?” Smith said. “It’s discriminatory.”
Elsewhere in the country, there is a fierce debate about the legality and fairness of providing undocumented students or their parents with financial aid or to even grant them in-state tuition fees at public universities in the states they live.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the conservative group Judicial Watch’s challenge to the University of California Regents’ decision to allow undocumented immigrants living in California to pay in-state tuition.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond this month dismissed a lawsuit brought by a U.S. citizen living in South Carolina, who was denied financial aid and in-state tuition because her parents were not living legally in the U.S.
In Tennessee, an effort to pass legislation earlier this year that would have granted undocumented students living in the Volunteer State in-state tuition failed. The issue has also received attention from some of the candidates running to replace Gov. Bill Haslam in next year’s gubernatorial election.
“We don’t need to be showing favor to an illegal immigrant over an American citizen from another state,” said Bill Lee, a Tennessee businessman vying for the GOP nomination in the governor’s race, told the USA TODAY Network.
Juan Salgado, chancellor of Chicago’s city college system, pushed back against such arguments, noting that “undocumented residents are taxpayers as well,” contributing to property and sales taxes that largely fund K-12 public education.
Giving students who have demonstrated success in the classroom a chance to pursue a college education is a practical follow through on the investment that’s already been made in the students through elementary and high school, Salgado said.
“The reason we offer a minimum of education is that we understand that it’s good for our society,” Salgado said. “These students have excelled. They’ve done exactly what we’ve asked them to do. We’ve already made an investment and as a society we want to make sure it continues to pay off.”
Emanuel and Salgado boast that the scholarship winners are notching early successes. In the early going, scholarship winners are surpassing community college graduation and retention rates. More than half of the first class of scholarship winners who have already graduated were accepted to at least one of 20 four-year colleges in Illinois, which have agreed to offer discounted tuition to Star scholarship transfer students.
Among the more than 200 scholarship winners who have graduated, about two-thirds were the first in their families to go to college. More than 90% were members of minority groups and more than 60% were female, Salgado said.
In a city with an estimated 425,000 undocumented immigrants — the bulk of whom come from Chicago’s large Hispanic community — demographic data offer a glimpse of why the scholarship may have had a disproportionate draw in the undocumented community.
Overall, Hispanic residents make up nearly 30% of the city’s 2.6 million population, and are the city’s second-largest ethnic or racial group. But the community trails Asian, black and white residents when it comes to home ownership, education achievement and earnings, according to a report published this month by the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy and Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Nearly 16% of Chicago’s Latino population age 25 and over had a bachelor’s degree or higher level of educational attainment compared with about 21% of African Americans and nearly 63% of non-Hispanic whites.
“This is a tool that high schools can utilize to motivate students,” said Salgado of the scholarship program. “It’s only a just and fair and equitable tool if it is in fact available to any student that achieves.”
Without it, some undocumented scholarship winners say their college — and career —prospects would grind to a halt.
Berenice Moreno, 18, managed to win admission to 28 colleges.
But Moreno, who was brought to Chicago from Mexico by her parents when she was 1, said she fell into an emotional tailspin during her final semester of high school after it became clear to her that she would not receive any federal financial aid.
For a while, she stopped doing homework or studying for tests, because she felt like there was no point. A high school counselor spotted her going adrift and told her about the city college scholarship that undocumented immigrants were eligible to apply for.
Community college hasn’t exactly matched her dream for college. Still, she’s optimistic it will be a good — and cheap — start to eventually getting her bachelor’s degree.
“I had lost all hope,” said Moreno, who is working two jobs to support herself while she attends the city’s Harold Washington College through the Star Scholarship. “If this hadn’t worked out…I worry I wouldn’t be doing anything with my life except being a bum.”
Berenice Moreno, 18, managed to win admission to 28 colleges but could not afford to go to any of them because she was ineligible to receive federal financial aid as an undocumented immigrant. Instead, she is attending Harold Washington College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago system, on a full scholarship. (Photo: Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY)
Rosales, the undocumented immigrant who was among the first class of scholarship winners, said she dreamed of attending the state’s flagship institution, the University of Illinois. But she said she quickly realized that with tuition and other fees topping out at more than $30,000, the university was a pipe dream with her being ineligible for federal or state financial aid.
The Star Scholarship proved to be her sole practical option if she was going to continue her education, Rosales said.
“Where was I going to get 30 grand a year?” said Rosales, whose father — the family’s breadwinner — works as an electrician.
Things are working out, Rosales said. She completed her associate’s degree with the scholarship, while working part time, and earlier this fall transferred to Dominican University in nearby River Forest, Ill., where she’s pursuing an education degree.
Rosales has cobbled together enough merit-based scholarships — including $29,000 from the privately funded Dream.US scholarship fund that assists high-achieving undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — that she is optimistic will cover the two years she estimates it will take to complete her bachelor’s degree.
She’s made huge strides toward her goal. Still, Rosales said she worries that things could fall apart for her and other DACA recipients.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has criticized DACA, saying it has “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens.” Trump announced last month he was winding down DACA and set a March deadline for Congress to find a legislative resolution for its recipients.
“This is all I know,” Rosales said of her life in the U.S. “The thing that gets me is that I’ve worked so hard, harder than my classmates to get to where I am right now. For it to be just taken away…I can’t deal with that.”
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