Shayla Rivera
Shayla Rivera
“I am stuck,” says Shayla Rivera, an undocumented student.
“I am stuck,” says Shayla Rivera, an undocumented student.

Sheyla Rivera can’t afford to finish her college degree.

She doesn’t qualify for financial aid. No bank will loan her money. And despite living in Connecticut for the last five years, she would have to pay out-of-state tuition rates.

Rivera is an undocumented immigrant.

“I am stuck,” said Rivera, who moved to West Hartford from Peru to be with her parents at age 15.

She paid her way through Capital Community College working as a waitress, but her plans to go on to earn a bachelors degree from Central Connecticut State University were stalled when she found out it would cost her $21,570 a year.

“I am not sure what I am going to do next [school] year. I can’t afford to continue,” she said.

Help may soon be on the way.

After a seven-hour debate, the state House of Representatives on Tuesday voted 78 to 70 to expand the number of undocumented immigrants who qualify for much lower in-state tuition rates. Meanwhile, another bill that would make these students eligible to compete for a $140 million pool of financial aid was approved by the state Senate on a 24 to 12 vote.

“These students are really struggling. We are talking about helping struggling, aspiring residents,” Rep. Roland J. Lemar, D-New Haven, said during an interview. “These kids are ready to go to college. I can find them in every one of my local high schools.”

Current state law requires an undocumented immigrant to attend all four years of high school in Connecticut to qualify for in-state tuition rates. The House bill would require the state’s public colleges to offer in-state tuition to children that attended a Connecticut high school for two years. It also would allow immigrant children who are victims of labor abuses or sex trafficking to be eligible to pay in-state tuition.

It’s unclear how many children would benefit from these changes. “It’s not a large number of students but enough students that we need to change” the law, Lemar said during the House debate.

Seven Democrats joined every Republican present in voting against the bill, which would have failed on a 74 to 74 tie vote had four more Democrats voted no.

Room for everyone?

Republican legislators argued against expanding who qualifies for in-state tuition.

“It’s not a large number of students but enough students that we need to change the law,” said Rep. Roland Lemar.
“It’s not a large number of students but enough students that we need to change the law,” said Rep. Roland Lemar.

“You’re making it easier for someone to come and take the spot of our constituents. I quite frankly think that’s wrong,” said Rep. Christopher Davis, R-Ellington.

“What this bill is doing is inviting individuals to move into our state,” said Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “They are going to compete [for a seat in college] with our children that have been here all their lives.”

The state’s public colleges accept thousands of students each year, and their budgets rely on having a certain number of students pay the higher out-of-state rates. The remaining majority of seats go to Connecticut residents. At the University of Connecticut, one-quarer of students pay out-of-state rates. At the state’s four regional Connecticut state universities, between four and 11 percent of the students pay out-of-state rates.

The state’s public colleges have grappled with multi-million deficits in each of the last several years.

“It seems to me that in order for them to make up that shortfall, the number one goal would be to get full-paying students as opposed to increasing the number of discounted [price] students,” said Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol.

While Republican House members argued that there are a limited number of seats at the in-state rate, Democratic lawmakers said it is unfair to base the tuition rate on someone’s immigration status if they went to high school for two years in Connecticut.

The move away from the four-year requirement was first proposed this year by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat.

Rep. Davis
“You’re making it easier for someone to come and take the seat of our constituents,” said Rep. Christopher Davis. CTMIRROR.ORG
“You’re making it easier for someone to come and take the seat of our constituents,” said Rep. Christopher Davis. CTMIRROR.ORG

“These students are often among the most financially needy,” Ben Barnes, the secretary of the governor’s Office of Policy and Management, told legislators on the committee that oversees higher education earlier this year. “This is also a question of fairness. Many of these students were brought to the United States by their parents in search of a better life, and they should not be penalized by being denied access to the tools necessary to better themselves.”

Of the 18 states in the U.S. that offer in-state rates to undocumented immigrants, Connecticut currently has the strictest threshold to qualify, reports the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most states require three years, and New York and Oklahoma require two.

Connecticut began allowing some children to pay in-state rates in 2011.

At the University of Connecticut, 90 students have identified themselves as being undocumented and taken advantage of in-state rates since the law was changed. The state’s other public college system — which includes the regional Connecticut state universities and community colleges — is unsure how many students have benefited from the change.

Opening financial aid

While students said they appreciate the change to the two-year threshold for in-state tuition, others said college would still be out of  their reach because they have no way to pay even the cheaper tuition. About 30 people rallied at the state Capitol on Saturday to ask that financial aid be opened for them.

“I can’t afford college,” read the signs of six immigrants during the rally.

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

The state’s public colleges currently set aside at least 15 percent of tuition dollars each year to provide needy students with financial aid. The aid pool totaled about $140 million last year, non-partisan legislative analysts reported. Tuition paid by undocumented students currently contributes to that financial aid pool, but those students are not eligible for aid.

Undocumented students rally at the state Capitol on Saturday
Undocumented students rally at the state Capitol on Saturday. CT Students for a Dream

Looney’s bill — which now awaits action in the state House — would open financial aid for children who qualify for in-state tuition rates beginning in the fall of 2017.

“They should have the same opportunity as their classmates,” said Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester.

Senate Republican legislators were split on whether this change in law makes sense.

Opponents argued that expanding who is eligible will crowd out funding for other residents.

“There is not going to be enough money,” Sen. Rob J. Kane, R-Watertown. “Someone is going to get bumped… I think what we are doing is hurting Connecticut residents.”

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, the system reports.

Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, welcomed the competition.

“It’s not a handout. It’s a hand helping people up,” he said during the Senate debate. “Increased competition is a good thing. This is America.”

Linares was one of four Republicans voting for the financial aid bill. The others were Minority Leader Len Fasano of North Haven, Kevin Witkos of Canton, and Anthony Guglielmo of Stafford. One Democrat, Paul Doyle of Wethersfield, voted no.

Whose decision is it?

Leaders of the state’s public colleges say it is not their call whether to offer financial aid to these students.

“It’s our understanding that federal law currently prohibits public institutions of higher education from granting financial aid to undocumented immigrant students,” UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said.

Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, said he also believed extending aid to undocumented immigrants conflicts with federal law.

“I am confused why the Connecticut General Assembly is doing this when the federal law clearly says we can’t,” said McLachlan. “This flies in the face of federal law.”

But Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has testified that legislators could allow financial assistance by changing state law.

“Although federal law permits states to offer undocumented students certain forms of state-funded financial assistance, to do so states must first enact state laws authorizing students to seek and receive financial aid,” said Jepsen, who supports such a change in law.

Five states — California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas and Washington — have changed their laws to allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid.

“UConn would support such legislation here to help us provide an affordable pathway to higher education for undocumented immigrant students through need-based and merit-based institutional aid,” said Reitz.

Waiting to see…

If the changes do eventually make it into law in Connecticut, Rivera would be eligible for financial aid starting in the fall of 2017. The bill granting in-state tuition would lower her bill substantially starting this fall.

“Ten thousand for tuition is so much better than $20,000,” said Rivera, who has until the end of June to let CCSU know if she will be attending the school to earn a degree in accounting.

She will only be able to go if she is offered in-state tuition and gets a scholarship.

“I am waiting to see what happens,” she said.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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