California’s first-class Dreamers

Beatriz, the daughter of  house cleaners, and Chava, the son of tamale and ice cream makers from San Jose, will enroll this fall in the University of California at Merced – an event they viewed as unattainable until two months ago. They did aspire to a four-year degree. But as undocumented immigrants from Mexico whose parents moved them to America before they were in middle school, they were realists, too. Community college would be all they could afford, if that.

Beatriz and Chava are the new California Dreamers, among the first to receive college aid under California’s   Dream Act, which Jerry Brown signed into law last year on its fifth trip to the governor’s desk.

Chava, at his graduation from Downtown College Prep in San Jose, would be the first of five children to attend college. Click to enlarge. (Photo by Fensterwald)
Chava, at his graduation from Downtown College Prep in San Jose, would be the first of five children to attend college. Click to enlarge. (Photo by John Fensterwald)

Starting in  2013, Cal Grants will be available to undocumented immigrants and other income-eligible nonresident Californians who graduated from a California high school after attending at least three years. But Beatriz’ and Chava’s counselor at Downtown College Prep, a charter high school in San Jose, had heard that UC campuses were planning to award Dream Act money through private scholarships under their control sooner than that under AB 130, a separate part of the Dream Act. So each student hurriedly filled out a financial application this spring, and, sure enough, soon after their UC Merced acceptance letter came, offers to each for $22,000 – a little more two-thirds of the estimated cost of fees and room and board at a UC campus for next year. Now, with their fathers’ encouragement and mothers’ ambivalent mixture of pride and trepidation, and with additional scholarships from DCP and money the families and students have saved, they’ll be heading away from home to college.

The state Department of Finance estimated last year that 2,500 students will qualify for Cal Grants under the Dream Act. That’s about 1 percent of the total recipients, but less than one third of those will be undocumented students. The rest will be California high school graduates who want to return to the Golden State for college.

Finance estimated the state cost of Cal Grants for Dream Act recipients at $14.5 million per year. Opponents of the law argue it will attract more illegal immigrants and siphon money that could be used for citizens. Proponents, like Gov. Brown, respond that the state should encourage and reward all students for their hard work; the state will need more college grads, and a Cal Grant is a pittance compared with the nearly $100,000 the state paid for their K-12 education.

Though they lack a U.S. birth certificate, Beatriz and Chava are American success stories, embodying “ganas,” that intense desire that teachers and students celebrate at Downtown College Prep. Beatriz’ family moved from the state of Oaxaca when she was 11, and the future social worker knew not a word of English. Soon she was interpreting for her parents as they went door to door in Fremont, drumming up business for the family. One of five children and the first to go to college,  Chava, a future entrepreneur, and his family left Tijuana when he was eight or nine.

“Both students have tremendous amount of grit,” says Prisilla Lerza, the college financial manager at DCP. “At different moments, they have dealt with their immigration status but given their all. All of our teachers would describe them as top students.”

At DCP, which targets low-performing middle school students from low-income Hispanic families, about 20 percent of students are undocumented immigrants. This year it was 11 of 49 graduates. During junior year, when it’s time to get serious about college applications, immigration status has become a demarcation, and sometimes a difficult subject to broach.

“Some students don’t know they are undocumented until they apply to college, and others are taught to be in the closet – that something bad can happen to them,” said Lerza. “The emotional part catches up at some point and for some can subtly manifest in despair. We see that in not meeting deadlines for applying or in terms of what schools they apply to; they pursue community college as their only option.”

This year, Cal Grants for high school graduates with a grade point average of 3.0 or higher provided tuition and fees of up to $12,192 at a UC campus and up to $5,472 at a CSU campus. For students with only a 2.0 GPA, the income ceilings are much lower – $42,100 for a family of four – and the first year aid of $1,551 is a lot lower. With state aid for eligible undocumented students still a year away, the Dream Act was cruelly illusive for many of Beatriz’ and Chava’s friends at DCP. Beatriz, with a 3.8 average, and Chava, with a 3.4, took their chances anyway, and applied to CSUs and UCs on the chance of private scholarships.

Never quite at ease

But California is not an island, and the debate over immigration roils the nation. The federal Dream Act, providing Pell grants and loans to undocumented students, along with a path to citizenship, remains tied up in Congress, and worry over getting inadvertently ensnared in raids by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tempers these students’ optimism.

Beatriz is not her name, and Chava is only his nickname. Their reluctance to identify themselves – Chava did permit his family graduation photo to be published after talking it over with his parents – reflects the eerie twilight they live in: What the state may giveth in scholarships, the feds may taketh away in opportunity to find work and live without fear after they graduate.

“My teachers say, ‘Things will change.’ When I talk to teachers, I am an optimist. But my uncles and aunts tell me, ‘You won’t be able to find work when you get out,’” Beatriz said.

I spoke with Beatriz and Chava the day before President Obama announced his historic executive decision to halt deportations of 800,000 federal Dream Act eligible students like them and to grant two-year renewable work permits. Reached yesterday, Chava said he would apply for a permit so that he can work while studying for extra money. But he is only partly encouraged by Obama’s action.

“A two-year work permit is not that much, and I’m not sure how long the process will take,” he said. “You can’t tell what will happen – whether Obama will be re-elected.”

Chava said that one day he may open a restaurant for his parents, who are street vendors. He discovered his interest in business when he was chosen one of three DCP students to attend an expense-paid conference sponsored by Rotary at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. “This was a brand new experience, one of the highlights in my life,” he said. The conference taught him how to engage with other people, how can you become entrepreneur and start and maintain a business, he said. Chava plans to double major in business and engineering – “to take advantage of the opportunity.”

UC Merced will wait until January to announce how much in private scholarships it awarded this year to Dream Act students. Dream Act applications went online in April for action after Jan. 1. So far, 6,500 students have begun the process of filling out the application and 5,108 completed it, according to Ed Emerson of the California Student Aid Commission, which will administer the program. These will include students seeking fee waivers from community colleges.

Plans to slash and boost college aid

Gov. Jerry Brown and  Assembly Speaker John Perez are heading in opposite directions on college financial aid. Brown proposes to pare back eligibility or amounts of aid  for 72,000 of 244,000 low- or modest-income families receiving Cal Grants. Perez on Wednesday proposed a massive scholarship program for nearly 200,000 University of California and California State University students in the solid and upper ranks of the middle class. But then, Perez is counting on an extra $1 billion by eliminating a corporate tax break that Republican legislators say they won’t abide.

Perez’s Middle Class Scholarship program would provide aid for families that earn as much as $150,000 per year but don’t qualify for college aid, which, in the case of eligibility for Cal Grants, is $80,200 for a family of four. Students would receive up to  $4,000 a year in CSU tuition and $8,200 in UC tuition. Community colleges would get $150 million in fee reductions to spread out as they determine.

The money would come from getting rid of a three-year-old tax break that lets corporations choose the  basis on which they would pay their California income taxes. Democrats went along with the change, which was pushed through without hearings, at the urging of business lobbies, as part of secret budget negotiations in 2009. Remorseful Democrats have been trying to rescind the break ever since, and require that corporations’  taxes be based on the percentage of sales they do in California. But because it would constitute a tax increase, a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature would be needed, and Republicans are already saying no. (Now, this would be a good bargaining chip for pension reform.)

Tuition and fees increases at UC, CSU and community colleges over the past five years. Source: Legislative Analyst's Office Analysis of the Govenor's Higher Ed Proposal. (Click to enlarge)
Tuition and fees increases at UC, CSU and community colleges over the past five years. Source: Legislative Analyst's Office Analysis of the Govenor's Higher Ed Proposal. (Click to enlarge)

There’s no question that the middle class has been walloped by tuition and fee increases, which have risen, since 2007-08:

  • 84 percent, to $12,192, at UC;
  • 97 percent, to $5,472, at CSU (scheduled to rise to $5,970 this September, a 115 percent increase since 2007-08);
  • 130 percent, to $780, for a full load of credits at a community college.

At the same time, the Legislature also has given the California Student Aid Commission one of the largest increases in the state budget over the same period, rising 85 percent from $812 million to $1.5  billion this year, roughly tracking tuition increases, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the Legislative Analyst.

The primary program the Aid Commission operates is Cal Grants, which provides aid to income and academically eligible students at UC, CSU, and, to a limited extent, community colleges. Students who attend private colleges also are eligible.

This explains who is eligible for the various Cal Grants. Source: Legislative Analyst's Office Analysis of the Govenor's Higher Ed Proposal. (Click to enlarge)
This explains who is eligible for the various Cal Grants. Source: Legislative Analyst's Office Analysis of the Govenor's Higher Ed Proposal. (Click to enlarge)

Cal Grant A, for high school students with a 3.0 Grade Point Average, provides full CSU and UC tuition. Cal Grant B, for students from more needy families (up to $50,000 in income) with at least a 2.0 GPA, provides $1,551 toward books and living expenses in the first year and subsequent years, plus full CSU or UC tuition starting the second year.

UC has also channeled one-third of every increased tuition dollar toward its own Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan to supplement Cal Grants, covering other expenses as well, including campus fees, books, and housing. It’s open to families earning up to $120,000 per year – some of the families that would be covered by Perez’s plan. UC says that the combination of Cal Grants and Blue and Gold Plan covered tuition and fee increases for 99,000 students – 55 percent of its undergraduates – this year.

Big cuts in Cal Grants

However, Brown is proposing to cut Cal Grants by $372 million in 2012-13, including:

  • $131 million by raising the minimum Grade Point Average, making 24,000 students ineligible. He wants to raise the GPA of Cal Grant A from 3.0, a B average, to 3.25, and Cal Grant B from 2.0, a C average, to 2.75.  In the LAO analysis, Steve Boilard, principal analyst for higher education, said the idea has merit, because there is a correlation between GPA and likelihood of success in college, “but we think it goes too far.” An exclusive focus on GPA also may discourage some high school students from taking harder courses, the report said.
  • Saving $171 million by cutting Cal Grants to students at independent, nonprofit colleges and universities by 44 percent and cutting awards for students at private, for-profit colleges by 59 percent.

According to the LAO, which opposes this idea, Cal Grants were established 57 years ago to enable more students to attend college at a time when state colleges were crowded, and they’ve been available since then. Since 2000, the maximum grant has been $9,708. Brown would lower Cal Grants to nonprofit colleges to $5,472 – what financially needy CSU students receive from Cal Grants – and to $4,000 for students attending for-profit schools.

The LAO said that the nonprofit/profit distinction masks more important distinctions in the quality of the colleges and their rates of success. It also said the result of the cuts could be to force more students to pursue UC or CSU degrees at a time when there aren’t seats available, thus denying more students opportunity for a degree.

The LAO offers alternative ways to save money on Cal Grants in the short run. Long-term, it recommends restructuring awards based on need and phasing out Cal Grants to families that can better afford expenses. Currently, there’s an arbitrary eligibility cutoff, leaving some families without grants for minor changes in income.

As fees for community college courses have risen, so have waivers issued by the Board of Governors, now approaching $850 million. Source: Legislative Analyst's Office. Click to enlarge..
As fees for community college courses have risen, so have waivers issued by the Board of Governors, now approaching $850 million. Source: Legislative Analyst's Office. Click to enlarge..

The LAO also recommends substantial changes to fee waivers granted by the Community College Board of Governors, although Brown doesn’t propose changes in his budget. The waivers from course fees now cost the General Fund nearly $850 million. Nearly one-third of students at community colleges receive them. The financial eligibility requirements are loose, and the waivers are open-ended.

The 21-member community college Student Success Task Force recommended changes to the waiver process, including requiring that students declare a concentration of study and achieve a minimum academic average to continue receiving fee waivers. The LAO agreed, and projected up to $100 million in savings if the changes were made. The waivers should also be need-based, the LAO said.