• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

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"Public Charge" and Financial Aid

A possible time bomb for many students.

January 29, 2020
 
 

Hat tip to @MarkHuelsman on this one.

It would be understandable if other Supreme Court-related events in D.C. drowned out this bit of news, but the Supreme Court allowed (by a 5-4 vote) the U.S. to restrict immigration to only those people who are not deemed a risk to become “public charges” and who have never been “public charges.”

Apparently, the definition of "public charge" being allowed is far broader than the term would suggest. The current administration suggests a definition expansive enough to cover anyone who ever received, say, Medicaid, Medicare or SNAP (what used to be called food stamps). As current scholars of poverty like to point out, the majority of SNAP recipients work; their wages are just too low to afford the basics, so they’re supplemented by SNAP. Now, the rule can even be applied retroactively, so someone who came here years ago and received SNAP for a year while working at [insert name of low-wage employer here] could be denied a green card for that, even if they have since become fully self-supporting.

The current administration’s interpretation of the public charge rule doesn’t include Pell Grants or college financial aid. Yet. But as Mark Huelsman pointed out this week, it takes a serious leap of faith to assume that, given the chance, it wouldn’t. And even if it doesn’t, it’s highly likely that some prospective college students who don’t want to be deported might decide that the FAFSA is entirely too risky and would instead skip it. If anything resembling public money is disqualifying, I could imagine folks steering clear of Pell Grants. That could leave them either at the mercy of high-cost private lenders or outside higher education altogether.

Although the impact of many students turning away could be felt throughout higher education, it would probably be felt most strongly at community colleges and open-admission state colleges. This is the sector with the largest proportion of first-generation and low-income students. Historically, it has been the most common point of entry for students just starting out in this country.

The impact will be magnified when the next recession hits, which is typically when enrollments go up. The folks at the bottom of the economic food chain are usually the first to absorb the impact of recessions; if they fear that turning to community college could get them deported, the remaining options won’t be pretty.

The story about the public charge case hasn’t (mostly) been covered as a higher ed story, but it will affect us. It will affect our students, both those who are already here and those who might have come.

Admittedly, there are some ifs in that statement. If this year’s election results in a change of party control, the public charge rule may revert to its historical role. The election wouldn’t overturn the Supreme Court case, but it could make it irrelevant, at least for a while; being told you can impose a terrible rule doesn’t mean that you have to. But there’s no guarantee on that. In the meantime, the danger of a devastating impact on vulnerable people is palpable.

I’ve written before that some of what community colleges are struggling with now is that they’re built to create a middle class for a country that no longer wants one. It’s hard to come up with clearer confirmation than this.

Here’s hoping that the decision is remembered, if at all, as an ineffectual historical blip. I’m just afraid that it’s much more than that.

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