GOP lawmakers: Open $100 million financial aid pot to undocumented students

Minority republicans on the Higher Education Committee vote in support of opening financial aid to undocumented students.

Minority Republicans on the Higher Education Committee vote in support of opening financial aid to undocumented students.

Updated 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Most Republican legislators on the Higher Education Committee voted Tuesday in favor of opening a $100 million pot of college financial aid to undocumented immigrants.

The vote may signal a change of heart among legislative Republicans about providing financial help to undocumented students.

When state lawmakers changed state law in 2011 to allow undocumented students who went to high school in Connecticut to pay in-state tuition, not a single Republican legislator voted in support.

This year Democratic leaders, including Sen. Martin Looney, the Senate’s top Democrat, are pushing to open financial aid for undocumented students.

The state’s public colleges currently set aside at least 15 percent of tuition dollars they collect each year to provide needy students with financial aid — which exceeded $100 million this year. Tuition paid by undocumented students currently contributes to that financial aid pool, but those students are not eligible to receive financial aid.

“It’s just unfair,” Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, the ranking minority member of the committee, said before the vote on the bill that would open financial aid to all students.

“I gladly stand in strong support,” said Witkos, who voted in 2011 against allowing immigrants who grew up in Connecticut to pay in-state tuition.

With seven Republicans on the committee, the lone “no” vote on the financial aid bill came from Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol.

Betts said he is not opposed to opening financial aid to undocumented students, but said some of his Republican colleagues may be.

“It’s a fair proposal, but I will be voting no just to flag it for members of my caucus,” he said.

One Republican committee member, Rep. Mike Alberts of Woodstock, was absent. All the Democratic members present supported the proposal. Democratic Rep. Claire Janowski of Vernon was absent. The final vote was 17 to 1.

Sen. Kevin Witkos

Sen. Kevin Witkos

Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is proposing a separate bill that would make $450,000 in financial aid available to undocumented immigrants over the next two school years.

Some concerns were raised during a public hearing that making undocumented students eligible for financial aid will strain a financial aid system that is already spread thin.

The pool of money Gov. Malloy would tap — known as the Governor’s Scholarship Program — has declined steadily to $37.4 million over the last several years. Last school year, 11,328 students received on average a $2,256 scholarship from this program. More than 20,000 students who were eligible did not receive a scholarship, the legislature’s non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis reported.

In the state’s largest public college system — which includes the dozen community colleges and four regional Connecticut state universities — 3,879 students did not receive the aid they requested last school year.

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