A New Jersey college education could become affordable to more young, undocumented immigrants as early as this fall, with legislation making them eligible for state financial aid now awaiting Gov. Phil Murphy’s expected signature.
Immigrants and advocacy groups are hoping Murphy will open the state’s financial aid programs to undocumented college students as a first step toward his goal of making New Jersey kinder for the estimated 500,000 immigrants living in the state without legal protection. Extending financial aid to undocumented students was one of Murphy’s.
This is the latest effort by lawmakers to put in place a program or policy vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie. While the Republican approved in 2013 a law having state colleges charge in-state tuition to undocumented students, he nixed an attempt to give the students need-based financial aid.
Yet without access to financial help, even in-state public college tuition proved too expensive for some students, as immigrant families have lower-than-average incomes.
"I was forced to take time from completing my degree because I couldn’t afford it,” said Madelyne Montes, a member of the Morristown-based Wind of the Spirit immigrant advocacy organization. “Access to state aid means that my future will no longer be put on hold.”
The Assembly passed last Thursday, which would allow certain undocumented residents to receive college aid from the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, the largest program of which is the Tuition Aid Grant. The lower house vote of 49-24 was largely along party lines, as was the Senate’s vote in late March.
If Murphy signs the measure, New Jersey would become the ninth state to open its aid coffers to these students.
Anyone eligible for in-state tuition under the 2013 law would also be eligible to receive financial aid if they meet income requirements. The average New Jersey college student got $7,451 from the TAG program last year. Eligible students must have attended at least three years of high school in New Jersey, be a graduate of a state high school or the recipient of a New Jersey high school equivalency diploma, enroll in a public or private college in the state, and either have applied for or agree to apply to legalize their status.
There is no requirement regarding grades. This program is strictly income driven, for low- or lower-income students. The income level differs from year to year and also depends on the size of the family.
The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimates that 600 students would be potentially eligible for tuition and if all those received an average TAG award, the cost to the state would total $4.5 million.
That would cost the average New Jersey taxpayer just 17 cents a year, said Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) and a sponsor of the bill, in response to some Republicans’ complaints about the cost of the measure during the debate on the bill.
“After just a few years of success, they (the students) would be paying more in taxes than they ever received in tuition assistance,” Schaer said. He lauded those undocumented students who have beaten “unbelievable odds” to succeed in school. Giving them the financial help to enable them to attend college is “what kind of state we want to be.”
Immigrant advocates called the vote historic, particularly in the wake of continuing attacks on the undocumented at the federal level. The ability to get financial help in the state will allow more so-called Dreamers and other immigrants to get an advanced degree, which they hope will lead to better, higher-paying jobs.
“Today the New Jersey state legislature made a historic vote to show young people like me that they believe in our future,” said Halexther Rivero, a youth leader with the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey.
Access to financial aid will allow students to finish college on-time and decrease dropout rates, said Johanna Calle, director of New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.
"This will help young immigrants and their families afford college and achieve their dreams,” Calle said. “It is a great first step but the fight is not over, we will continue to work with legislators to address the other major challenges that young immigrants face including expanding access to driver’s licenses so they can drive to school and continue to support their families.”