CT Dreamers One Step Closer To Equal Access To Institutional Aid For Higher Education

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CT Dreamers One Step Closer To Equal Access To Institutional Aid For Higher Education

By Emanuela Palmares | Photo by George Lee

On March 15, two dozen students gathered in the atrium of the legislative office building in Hartford, each with a sign spelling out “Our Dreams Can’t Wait.” After marching around the atrium in unison, the students gathered and marched together to the office of the Speaker of the House Aresimowicz.

Once there, currently undocumented college students shared their stories, flanked by posters of undocumented students who would benefit from a bill that could change their future, and delivered 250 testimonies in its support.

The bill, a bi-partisan proposal known as HB 5031 (AN ACT EQUALIZING ACCESS TO STUDENT GENERATED FINANCIAL AID), would equalize access to higher education and institutional aid to immigrant students in Connecticut. Currently, undocumented students pay fees that contribute to institutional aid for U.S. citizen students but are not eligible for the aid themselves.

The action was organized by CT Students for a Dream, a youth-led statewide network fighting for the rights of undocumented youth and their families, who were running their #Afford2Dream campaign for the fifth year, pressuring legislators to pass the bill.

The bill was introduced by the Higher Education Committee. Similar proposals passed the Senate with bipartisan support in 2015 and 2016 and passed the Higher Education Committee with bipartisan support in 2017.

On March 15, CT Students for a Dream was able to clear one of its hurdles again; the bill passed the Higher Education Committee with bipartisan support.

At the public hearing, no one spoke against the bill.

“For the third year in a row, the higher education committee cast a bipartisan vote in favor of equalizing access to institutional aid for undocumented students. Just three weeks ago, we saw the overwhelming support for HB 5031 – over 250 testimonies were submitted in support for the bill’s public hearing, and for seven hours students, educators, community leaders and allies from across the state testified in support. We delivered those 250 testimonies to the House leadership. We are here to say: ‘Get this done – Connecticut stands behind you. Get this done – we can no longer wait.’” said campaign manager Camila Bortolleto.

Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, testified in favor of the bill, saying that it would “right a wrong.”

“These are not students struggling at the margins,” he said. “These are some of the highest performing students in the state.”

In the 2017 legislative session, Rep. Pam Staneski, the ranking Republican on the legislature’s Higher Education Committee stated at a press conference in favor of the bill, that she struggled with this concept, and part of it was because she did not understand it.

“The myth out there is that all these students who are undocumented are going to take all of this money for institutional aid – and they’re not, because it’s a blind selection,” Staneski said.

In her testimony to the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee on February 13 of this year, UConn’s Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Policies and Strategic Initiatives, Mona Lucas, said the university supports the passage of the bill.

She also reassured legislators and stressed that it is important to note that the fact a student is undocumented does not make them any more or less likely to be admitted to UConn.

All applicants are evaluated and admitted to UConn based on their academic strength. Therefore, if this legislation were to become law, the fact a student is undocumented will not make them any more or less likely to receive financial aid. All financial aid decisions are based on need, merit or a combination of the two for each individual student.

“We recognize that the current state statute restricts our ability to provide financial assistance to these students, which may limit their educational access. This also means that undocumented residents enrolled at public colleges and universities in Connecticut are treated differently than other students who are residents, because of their immigration status,” Lucas said. “The legislation before you would change that for the better.”

Lucas said if the bill was passed, it would open about 20 percent of available financial aid to undocumented students and it would not prevent U.S. citizen students from obtaining financial aid.

“If this legislation is approved, it does not mean an undocumented student will be more likely to receive aid. All financial aid is based on a student’s need and academic performances,” she said.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, agrees. She has stated it is unfair to require undocumented students to pay 15 percent of their tuition toward financial aid they are not able to receive.

And it is that sustained bipartisan support that gives hope to students like Yenimar Cortes, an ACA Recipient, and Eastern Connecticut State University Student, who after realizing she couldn’t receive financial aid, “was filled with anguish and frustration.” She believed she had no future, and remembers one day just sitting in her room looking through all her college acceptance letters crying because she realized that she simply could not afford to attend college without help.

“But today, we made our voices heard and our presence known. As we occupied the lobby of the Legislative Office Building and met with our legislators, we let it be known that our dreams and aspirations can no longer wait, we need #Afford2Dream to pass this year.  The positive vote today is an affirmation that our state of Connecticut supports the dreams and the futures of all our residents, no matter where they come from,” she said.

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March 22, 2018

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