Immigrant students without legal status struggle to pay for college

Jazmin Ramirez
Jazmin Ramirez

By Manon Lane

Jazmin Ramirez always wanted to go to college, but it wasn’t until she was a junior in high school that she realized it might not be possible.

“I always knew I was undocumented, but I never actually understood what that meant until my junior year of high school when I started applying, or looking into colleges,” said Ramirez, a freshman social justice major, as she stood in front of her peers and gave a student’s perspective at the G92 Immigration Forum hosted last month by the J.V. Morsch Center for Social Justice.

Ramirez is one of 40 immigrant students without legal status at Trevecca. These students do not qualify for federal grants and loans, or in some states, in-state tuition for public universities.

More than 1 million immigrant children without legal status reportedly live in the United States. Roughly 65,000 graduate from high school each year, but experts estimate that fewer than 6,500 go on to attend college, according to an August 2014 article in U.S. News and World Report.

Rebecca Merrick, international student advisor and assistant coordinator of disability services, noticed when she was working in admissions at Trevecca that many bright and motivated students faced barriers to a college education because they didn’t have all the paperwork they needed.

Since Merrick began working with the students, the university has worked to offer scholarship money to students who don’t qualify for other types of financial aid.

“We have elected that there is a social justice issue, and [we] try and do our part,” said Merrick. “Luckily there were definitely people higher up that agreed we needed to work with those students to get them here.”

Ramirez came to the U.S. from Mexico with her mother and brother, when she was 7-years-old. They reunited with her father, and lived in Minnesota for the first years of her educational journey.

She entered the Tennessee school system in the sixth grade, and graduated from Glencliff High School in 2013.

Ramirez now has temporary resident status and a temporary social security number through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) though this still does not qualify her for government financial aid.

Because she could not get any financial aid, she had to take a year off from school. Ramirez said she became discouraged and lost motivation as she watched her goals slip away.

“I cried myself to sleep so many nights, because I could see my friends walking to their dreams and I would be like, ‘Jazmin, you can’t go to school because you can’t pay out-of-state tuition, because schools aren’t willing to give you financial aid to go to school,’” said Ramirez. “I started seeing that maybe all those doors were being closed on me because I didn’t have a nine-digit number, a social security number.”

By what would have been her spring semester as a college freshman, Ramirez realized she could not get a good job without a college education and experience, and needed to try applying to schools again.

Trevecca offers institutional scholarships to all students who qualify. University officials also work with other organizations that offer scholarships to students without legal status. It was through these avenues that Ramirez had enough money to enroll at Trevecca.

Students without legal status have the same opportunity at Trevecca as other applicants for academic and other scholarships, said Kevin Reed financial aid counselor at Trevecca.

“I’m actually going through our endowments now, and we are not penalizing a student who hasn’t been able to fill out a FAFSA, and actually we consider them the highest need, potentially, for endowments,” he said.

The FAFSA is a document college students complete each year to determine how much federal financial aid they are eligible for. Students who don’t have legal status cannot complete a FAFSA.

Under current state law, regardless of the number of years lived in Tennessee, students without legal status cannot qualify for in-state tuition (where applicable), or any other governmental financial aid.

Through federal and state grants, scholarships and loans, up to $17,230 is available to qualifying students. However, none of that money is available to students without legal status, Reed said.

“What hinders students, if they don’t have a social security number, they don’t have the ability to qualify for Pell Grants,” said Reed.Pell

A student who qualifies for a full Pell Grant, which is federal financial aid, gets nearly $6,000.

Several outside organizations, including YMCA Latino Achievers and Equal Chance for Education, also provide students with scholarship money to try to make up the gap for no governmental financial aid.

Reed said the university and these other organizations can fill in some of the gaps, but not all of it.

Adding to the hurdles students without legal status face is the fact that most banks require a U.S. resident to co-sign for any student loans as well.

“They can’t just go to their bank that they’ve had a relationship with, and get a student loan.They have to have a U.S. co-signer,” said Merrick. “So that $22,000 to $30,000 that everybody else is complaining about having to take out in student loans to be able to cover every year, they’re having to find a way to pay out of pocket.”

The scholarships Trevecca awards all students depends on the student and their achievements before college, Reed said.

“A student who scores a 30 on the ACT and has a 4.0 GPA, and has done a lot of clubs and been in leadership, Trevecca’s going to award them very differently than a student who went through high school with a 2.8 GPA, wasn’t involved in anything and doesn’t have a good ACT score,” he said.

Jamie Casler, director of the Center for Social Justice, organized the forum last month on Christian responses to immigration. He said providing access to higher education to students without legal status is part of doing Biblical social justice.

“I was very pleased that I work and serve at a university that believes in providing opportunity and access for undocumented students to have a private school education,” said Casler. “When we talk about Biblical social justice, we’re often talking about access to resources. So in this instance it has to do with access to college education, which is paramount to an undocumented individual, or any individual for that matter.”

Information from TrevEchoes March 2015 issue.
Information from TrevEchoes March 2015 issue.


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