Cynthia Cruz-Diaz grew up in the New Brunswick area. She attended schools in the city and neighboring Franklin before graduating from New Brunswick High School in 2009.
A good student, Cruz-Diaz assumed that she would attend college and graduate with a degree in planning and public policy. Now 23 and six years removed from high school, she remains at least a year or two from her goal. The reason: Her immigration status.
Because Cruz-Diaz entered the country illegally with her parents when she was two years old, she does not qualify for need-based tuition assistance or financial aid. So, while changes in state law that allow students like her -- those who grew up and graduated from a New Jersey high school but who are in the country without authorization -- to qualify for in-state tuition, paying for college remains an almost insurmountable hill to climb.
“I don’t understand what my (immigration) status has to do with me being able to afford college,” she said. “They already look at us differently. For them to say we can’t grant (undocumented students) the aid or financial assistance other New Jersey graduates get -- they are marking us with an ‘X.’”
Cruz-Diaz is among the hundreds of undocumented-immigrants in the state who were helped by a 2013 compromise between Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature’s Democratic leadership, which allowed so-called childhood arrivals who attended and graduated from New Jersey high schools to qualify for in-state tuition at state schools. Previously, immigrant students were forced to pay out-of-state tuition at the state’s 11 four-year colleges and universities and 19 two-year community colleges.
Under the compromise, Christie agreed to conditionally veto Democratic legislation that would have extended in-state-tuition eligibility to undocumented students and grant them access to state higher-education aid programs, primarily the Tuition Assistant Grant. He approved in-state tuition, but removed the aid provision and the Democratically controlled Legislature voted to accept the changes.
Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), in announcing the deal in December 2013, called it the best option at the time, but vowed to push for the state-aid provision. Bills were introduced in both houses of the state Legislature in September 2014 to.
The Assembly version --, sponsored by Democrats Gary Schaer (Passaic), Gordon Johnson (Bergen), Annette Quijano (Union), Raj Mukherjee (Hudson), Valerie Vanieri Huttle (Bergen), Benjie Wimberly (Passaic) and Democratic Speaker Vincent Prieto (Hudson) -- was approved 7-4 by the Assembly Budget Committee in December after being transferred from the Higher Education Committee. All four Republicans voted against the bill.
The Senate version,, sponsored by Sweeney and fellow Democrat Teresa Ruiz (Essex), has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing.
Supporters of the legislation, who include immigrant and liberal groups, a majority of legislative Democrats, and many New Jersey college administrators, say that students who have attended New Jersey schools should have the same opportunities to succeed in education as their classmates, regardless of immigration status. They say that the state has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars educating undocumented students in the public schools and that further investment in their college efforts would be good for the New Jersey.
Critics, who include many legislative Republicans and conservative groups, say the pool of state higher-education aid is finite and granting access to aid to undocumented students would make less money available to citizens and legal residents.
Hoping to move the aid bill forward, the liberal policy group New Jersey Policy PerspectiveApril 8 that it says shows the 2013 tuition equity bill was only a partial success. It has resulted in increased applications from and admissions of the “dreamer” cohort -- those who came to this country when young -- because it has lowered costs. But it could go much farther when it comes to students eligible for aid.
According to the report, written by Erika Nava, 251 immigrant students qualified for in-state tuition under the Tuition Equality Act and entered a New Jersey four-year school for the first time. That represented a 666 percent increase in new immigrant student enrollment between spring 2014 and fall 2014, according to the report. Most student enrollment occurs during the fall rather than the spring semester, and fall 2013 numbers were not included in the. report.
Overall, 81 percent of undocumented students enrolled in the fall at three schools – Rutgers, New Jersey City University, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology – where they made up about 1.5 percent of the student body.
The 2013 legislation, the report said, “is an essential step toward providing better educational opportunities for all students in the state.” The problem is, the report continued, “many are still unable to pursue this opportunity, largely due to lack of financial assistance.”
The average in-state tuition and fees for New Jersey’s 11 public colleges and universities was $13,002 for the 2014-2015 academic year, the report said, “42 percent more than the national average of $9,139 and the fourth highest in the nation.”
This has caused students, more and more, to “turn to both student loans and need-based financial aid to help meet the rising costs,” the report says. “However, the chances are slim to none that undocumented students in New Jersey will be able to cover their costs, as they are not eligible for any type of state or federal financial aid, regardless of their academic accomplishments or financial need” and they are not currently eligible for state-aid programs.
Cruz-Diaz says the lack of access to aid has slowed her progress toward her degree. She entered Rutgers in 2012 with 61 credits from Middlesex County College, but has managed to earn just 25 credits at Rutgers. She received a private grant during her first year at Rutgers, but was forced to take a year off when that grant dried up. She returned to school part time after the Tuition Equality Act passed in 2013. She currently is taking seven credits, while continuing to work full time.
“When I started, it was almost $14,000 for one semester because it was for out-of-state,” she said. “Even with in-state tuition, I have to have full-time job and I have to go to school part time. It is $7,000 a semester depending on fees for instate, which is too much for me to afford.”
She said she is living on her own “paying rent, paying for food expenses, transportation expenses, a cell-phone bill.” And she is paying upwards of $300 per pay period in taxes
“I feel like I am an American, even though I was born in Mexico,” she said. “I am a single student with a low income paying for myself to go through college, and paying living expenses. The only thing that separates me from anyone else is my status.”
Gordon MacInnes, president of NJPP, said the report should help correct a “lack of evidence available to the governor at the time he issued the conditional veto” and that Christie should “see it as something that will improve New Jersey’s economic prospects.” says the state already has made a huge investment in students like Cruz-Diaz, spending up to $250,000 over the course of their public-school educations. Providing state aid should be part of that investment.
Critics of the aid bill, however, see it as problematic, given the state’s budget situation. Many of the Republicans who oppose granting aid, for instance, say they are sympathetic to the plight of undocumented students, but that there would be budget implications to adding more students to the state-aid pool.
Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), one of four Republican budget committee members to vote against the aid expansion, supported granting in-state tuition to undocumented students but said the state “already doesn’t have enough (aid money) for the people we are serving now.”
“The bottom line is we don’t have the money,” he said. “I don’t think we serve anyone -- we don’t do anyone any favors when we make promises we can’t keep.”
This has been the issue with New Jersey budgeting for years, he said. There are a number of good causes, but there is not enough money to fund all of them.
“This bill would either add to our spending or further dilute the current pool of aid to help people who are not here legally,” he said.
“At some point,” he added, “we have to be the responsible guy rather than the good guy.”
Gayle Kesselman, president of the New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control, said the bill would use “hard-earned taxpayer dollars to give assistance to people who have broken our laws.”
“Our first priority (in providing support) should be for citizens and legal residents,” she said. “It is terrible to think that a son or daughter of someone who has been working in New Jersey all their life and paying taxes will not be able to go to the college of his choice because someone who is here illegally has taken his place.”
Officials at several of the state’s four-year schools said they were not surprised by the report and many support the expansion of state-aid programs to immigrant students.
Courtney McAnuff, the vice president for enrollment management at Rutgers, called the 2013 Tuition Equality Act a “phenomenal asset to the students,” because it cut their tuition costs in half. But many undocumented students find even that reduced rate out of reach.
“Very few get support from their family so they work several jobs,” he said. “They become nomadic and step out of school for a semester to save money so they can afford it.”
Many attend part-time, which McAnuff said is less than ideal -- both from a financial standpoint (it costs more per credit to attend part-time than to pay flat, full-time tuition) and from an academic standpoint (students can commit more to and concentrate better on their studies when they attend full time).
Sue Henderson, president of New Jersey City University, said most of the undocumented students she has met are “very motivated, bright, and they want to go on and give back to society.”
“These students are here,” she said. “I am not weighing in on whether we should be letting more in. They are here and we have a responsibility to give them an education.”
The New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, which represents nine of the 11 public, four-year schools, has not taken a position on the bill. Michael Klein, NJASCU executive director, said the issue is larger than just undocumented students. The state needs to better fund the TAG program, he said, and to discuss how state money for higher education is used.
“We think it is important to have a conversation with policy leaders and educational leaders on how to best maximize the funding,” he said.
In general, the issue of college affordability for all students has been handled by the state in a piecemeal fashion, he said. Rather than treating questions about operating and long-term facilities costs, tuition and aid as separate issues, the state needs to consider them as an organic whole, he said.
“It is important that we have a conversation about how those resources are allocated and who should be eligible,” he said. “The undocumented need help affording tuition at public institutions, but it is a broader statewide concern.”