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A Message to Prospective Undocumented Students

October 16, 2008

High school counselors keep lists – short lists based on unofficial, one-on-one conversations about which colleges, mostly private ones, admit and grant institutional aid to illegal immigrants, says David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“What I consistently hear from counselors is they’re constantly trying to figure out what colleges they might have any chance to send an undocumented student to, realistically, with financial aid,” Hawkins explains. "It seems that there's this underground information that is flowing. It's not well-known, and it's not coordinated in any way."

“There are a lot of private colleges that actually do give undocumented students financial aid. It’s just that they don’t advertise it.”

With some states barring these students from public colleges, private colleges may soon be forced to consider advertising their own policies. In the meantime, if a pending recommendation becomes policy, high school counselors could confidently add Vassar College to their respective lists. In a recent recommendation to the president, Vassar’s Committee on Inclusion and Excellence proposed that the private institution adopt and publicize a new policy clearly signaling that it “will give admission applications submitted by undocumented students the same consideration given to any other applications it might receive. Undocumented students who are admitted to Vassar will be offered financial assistance based on demonstrated need following the same procedures Vassar uses to grant aid to accepted international students.” (Undocumented students aren't eligible for federal aid.)

Vassar now has no formal policy on undocumented student admissions and aid, says David Borus, dean of admission and financial aid at Vassar and a member of the 20-person committee of administrators, faculty and students that put forward the proposal.

“We wouldn’t get many applications in a given year from undocumented students, and when we did, we would handle them on a case-by-case basis,” Borus explains. “There are a number of schools that have quietly but consistently admitted and funded undocumented students over the years…. Vassar isn’t looking necessarily to be a trend-setter here or make a statement. We’re trying to clarify what our own procedures and policies should be.”

“It is in everyone’s best interest for colleges to be clear, or clearer, about what their policies are with regard to the admission and financial aid process,” Borus says. “Currently there is no stated policy and we don’t want to leave students and families and counselors and others wondering where they stand and what the possibilities are. We’d like to make it a bit clearer and more explicit.”

In 2007, Vassar returned to a "need blind" admissions policy for domestic students, meaning that applicants’ financial circumstances aren’t considered in admissions decisions. In March, Vassar announced it would replace loans with grants for students with family incomes of up to $60,000. Vassar’s president, Catharine Bond Hill, is an economist who has specialized in issues of higher education affordability and access.

Katherine Hite, an associate professor of political science and director of Vassar’s Latin American and Latino Studies program, is co-chair of the committee that offered the policy recommendation on undocumented students. “It’s much in keeping with the kind of broad-minded understanding and inclusive spirit of the college,” she says. “I am proud that Vassar is willing to consider that they should publicly step up."

The committee submitted the recommendation to the president September 19; its fate is still pending. The Vassar Student Association Council subsequently endorsed it unanimously, and the student newspaper, The Miscellany News, this week published an editorial in support. "A lot of federal policy, it revolves around exclusion," says James Kelly, a senior and the Vassar Student Association president. “We’re just making those students aware that Vassar is an option. Because without saying it [explicitly], given everything else that’s going on, it just might be perceived as an exclusive place."

About "everything else that's going on," while Vassar’s home state, New York, is one of 10 states that extends lower in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, a number of states have restricted illegal immigrants’ access to public colleges in recent months. (While a 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, affirms the right of illegal immigrants to a K-12 education, it doesn’t extend to higher education.)

Earlier this year, South Carolina barred illegal immigrants from attending public colleges as part of a sweeping new immigration law, and Alabama and North Carolina both prohibited them from entering community colleges. Meanwhile, in reinstating a dismissed lawsuit last month, a California appeals court found that in offering in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants, the state was “thwarting” the intent of federal immigration law.

“Vassar College is very quick to forget that more than 40 percent of the country is on my side,” says Jeremy Bright, a sophomore and president of the institution's Moderate, Independent and Conservative Alliance. Bright, who wrote an op-ed opposing the proposed admissions policy for undocumented students, says he opposes the recommendation “for both ideological and practical reasons.”

“I can understand the logic of taking one or two, or selectively taking specific candidates, saying, ‘Oh, this person’s very qualified, and we need to bring him or her here,'” says Bright. “I may not agree with it personally, but at least I can understand the logic.”

“But to publicly adopt a policy…basically endorsing illegal immigration, and saying that borders don’t matter, citizenship doesn’t matter, I’m completely against that.”

“To me, it sends a message to other applicants about, ‘This is the stated ideology of the school,’” Bright says.

Given the clashing ideologies characterizing the present political climate, a college is arguably brave these days for even attempting to enter into the immigration fray. Colleges typically have avoided formalizing their policies both because of the deep divisiveness of immigration issues, politically speaking, and, more practically speaking, the relatively low numbers of potential applicants any policies would impact, explains Hawkins, of the college admission counseling group.

But demographics are changing. Susan Klopman, vice president of admissions and financial planning at Elon University, in North Carolina -- which, on the flip side of things, as a matter of practice but not formal policy does not admit undocumented students -- says the issue of whether to admit or not to admit will likely attract greater attention at private colleges in the coming years. (Explaining Elon’s own practice, Klopman cites a desire not to run afoul of the federal government, and its financial aid stream, and a desire to treat all non-U.S. applicants equally, in terms of visa requirements and such.)

"None of us quite understand how the changing demographics of this country are going to affect our institutions, and I think that will bring this question to the fore in a more pressing manner than we have had to deal with up to this point,” Klopman says.

 

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