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Aid for undocumented students not just a social issue, say admin

Updated 4/14, 4:22 p.m.

While there is broad agreement among informed faculty and senior staff that a more equal financial aid policy for undocumented applicants is a “social justice issue,” there’s no consensus about where the issue ranks among the College’s financial priorities.

Last year, students passed a resolution calling on the administration to change its admission and financial aid policies for undocumented applicants. But except for a few weeks of online debate after a student impersonated Interim President Joanne Creighton in a fabricated email announcing major policy changes, most of the conversation has unfolded behind closed doors among the Faculty Committee on Admission, which is made up of deans, faculty and students.

After months of discussion, committee chair and Associate Professor of Chemistry Frances Blase says she will present a report of the committee’s findings at the May faculty meeting, although it won’t be on the table for action and there’s no promise how much discussion time the issue will get.

Currently, undocumented individuals apply as international students and, given their lack of U.S. citizenship, are unable to receive federal grant aid, loans or work study. Non-citizen students all compete for just three slots for financial aid a year.

With so many competing projects and priorities for the strategic plan, a five-year document which outlines priorities and goals for the College’s resources, changing the policy for undocumented students may be a hard sell.

Senior staff have said the issue is important, but not fully explored and potentially costly. Earlier this year, while expressing support for the intent of the plenary resolution, Creighton pointed to the substantial cost of providing aid for undocumented students and said national legislation such as the Dream Act is “really the way this issue has got to go.”

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jess Lord, who also sits on the admission committee, says that applying the current need-blind policy to undocumented students would be “prohibitively expensive” and “the most feasible option seems to be making a minor change, such as committing to fund one undocumented student per class.”

“Even this, however, needs to be considered in the context of the larger strategic planning conversations that are happening right now,” he added.

A “social justice issue”

The plenary resolution passed last spring, “Resolution for Fair Admissions Consideration for Undocumented Applicants,” asks the Admissions and Financial Aid offices to “devise a method of giving undocumented students fair, need-blind admissions consideration that takes into account the unique barriers of hardship, discrimination, and systematic oppression that they face.”

In his email impersonating Creighton, student activist Ed Menefee ’15, who is being taken to Honor Council by the administration for the unauthorized email blast, called on the College to give undocumented students the same financial aid package as U.S. citizens.

Blase says the issue has been on the committee’s agenda since the fall and has dominated discussions throughout this semester. She said the Faculty Committee agrees that admission standards for undocumented students is a “social justice issue” and thus a priority, but there’s still disagreement about how high a priority.

“Undocumented students are a part of the American fabric of our society…In fact, our ethos and mission both focus on issues of social justice, and empowering those who are marginalized. These students then fit squarely within the spirit of the College’s philosophy,” read the minutes from the committee’s February 7 meeting.

One committee member noted, according to the minutes, which were taken without reference to individuals, “that it is admirable for us to take a principled stand.”

Another member suggested the Board of Managers may not be the governing body to lead the policy change, given the tight budgets and “competing pressures for money to support programs, buildings, faculty, student services, etc.”

Moreover, according to the minutes there seems to be disagreement among members of the Board about current financial aid policy. Some members of the Board think it’s unsustainable and “would have removed the ‘No Loan Policy’ a year ago. On the other hand, some are desperate to find ways to maintain the policy. For the community to then suggest an expensive change, like supporting an undocumented student, we would be making a serious alteration to the strategic plan.”

At a recent meeting to discuss the College’s 10-year financial trajectory, Associate Director of Finance and Investments Director Michael Casel projected a few options for how the no-loan policy might be altered. One option is an “income contingent” loan policy, proposed to the Board five years ago, “in which students with family incomes below $60,000 would have no loans, loans would scale in up to $100,000 in family income and over $100,000 in family income would have the full loan amounts, similar to before the no-loan policy was approved,” said Casel in an email.

While he would not speculate on the probability that the no-loan policy will change, Casel noted that “the loans policy is certainly being talked about very extensively, given that financial aid is the fastest growing expense of the College and is a major and growing portion of the budget.”

So what are the options?

Policies toward undocumented students vary widely at other colleges and universities. According to its public affairs representative Max Benavidez, Claremont McKenna College in California provides a financial aid scholarship for just one undocumented student a year.  CMC has roughly the same number of students as Haverford and an endowment of over $520 million.

Bryn Mawr College does not use national origin or citizenship in its admission or aid process, meaning that while only U.S. citizens can get federal money, both undocumented and international students with demonstrated need can receive loans and grants from the College, said Dean of Admissions and Interim Dean of Enrollment Laurie Koehler.

Students who “do not qualify for work study or employment have the work portion of their award substituted with institutional grant dollars instead,” Koehler said.

Although undocumented students can’t accept federal financial aid, and in most cases, state aid, private institutions set their own rules. In that sense, there are no legal barriers for colleges to use their own money for aid.

While the discussion is still in “brainstorming stages,” the odds of a totally need-blind policy for undocumented applicants, which would treat them as U.S. citizens, is unlikely.

A student on full financial aid receives about $40,000 in aid from Haverford. Lord estimates the cost for a single, full-need undocumented student to be up to $60,000, given their ineligibility for federal and state aid inability to work or receive work-study.

Blase says a more likely solution would be to find a donor for a dedicated endowment, which would fund a scholarship for undocumented students.

Still, Lord estimates a $4.8 million endowment would be required for Haverford to begin accepting one undocumented student per class.

“The math behind this is an estimated cost of $60,000 for a year at Haverford multiplied by 20 (this is the typical formula for estimating required endowment, although to be honest it may be optimistic in this day and age),” Lord explained in an email. “This means $1.2 million of endowment to cover the cost of fully funding one student in one year. If you have one such student in all four classes at Haverford, then you get to the $4.8 million figure.”

Lord admits that the $1.2 million amount-per-student is a high estimate. For example, if Haverford enrolled an undocumented student, it’s impossible to guess whether they would be taking the place of a U.S. citizen student with no need or full need.

Taking into account the potential variation in need any given year, Lord offers an “average” estimate of $30,000 per student, per year, or a $2.4 million endowment.

Both Lord and other members of the admission committee have noted a few other concerns. For one, it’s unclear whether the faculty would get behind these policies or support the presence of undocumented students on campus.

Blase says the committee is also concerned about what additional personal or financial support the College would need to provide to overcome the specific challenges that undocumented students face.

“When you bring these students here, they need support – all students need support. Undocumented students cannot work, they cannot get jobs. They may not be able to get internships. It’s not just ‘find money and bring them here,'” said Blase. “What are the implications to help that person thrive in this community?”

She says the committee has noted what schools in California are doing, where an in-state tuition bill and the passage of two state “Dream Act” bills means many more undocumented students are able to attend public universities.

For example, at the California State University at Long Beach (CSLUB), faculty and staff can join a network of trained “allies” who provide academic advice and personal support to undocumented students. Allies are identifiable by a distinctive decal displayed prominently in their office windows.

Before any decisions can be made, senior staff and student leaders have said both the faculty and the community as a whole need to have “an honest conversation” about what we would give up as a College to support undocumented students.

Blase herself is unsure of where to place a more equal policy for undocumented students among the institution’s priorities.

“What about the kid in the inner-city who can’t afford [college] either?” said Blase. “We try to help those students, but we could always do more. There are so many needs out there.”

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