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Undocumented Students Seek Financial Options

by Maria Minsker | Cornell University

F Posted in: College P Posted on: March 16, 2012
Screen shot 2012-03-15 at 10.16.32 PM Image courtesy of Flickr, longislandwins

Over 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year. Though the Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional to deny a K-12 public education to children who are in the country illegally, undocumented students often face major challenges when applying to colleges and attempting to pay for higher education.

After graduating from high school, undocumented students’ futures are typically unpredictable, because they are not eligible for federal financial aid or private student loans. They also cannot work legally.

In the past, attempts by the federal government such as the DREAM Act, aimed at helping undocumented students, have gained bipartisan support. The DREAM Act and similar legislation were ultimately not approved by Congress, because they reignited the debate over how to deal with U.S. border problems and the 11 million illegal aliens currently living in the country.

Frustrated with the inefficiency of the government approach to the issue, a group of Silicon Valley technology leaders including Jeff Hawkins (inventor of the Palm Pilot), the family foundations of Andrew Grove (co-founder of Intel Corp.), and Mark Leslie (founder of the former Veritas Software Corp.), as well as Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs), have chosen to take matters into their own hands.

“We think Congress’s inaction…is devastating for these students and tragic for the country,” Laurene Powell Jobs told the Wall Street Journal.  

Along with many of the other Silicon Valley philanthropists, Jobs directs her ideas and donations to Educators for Fair Consideration, or E4FC, a nonprofit organization that gives scholarships, career advice and legal services to students that are in the U.S. illegally.

Though big-name philanthropists and ordinary people have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last year to the group, E4FC’s operating budget remains fairly small — about $600,000.

Because the government will likely not take steps to help undocumented students facing the problem of financing their education, other non-profits, as well as private universities, often take steps to give these students options.

Cornell University, for example, had a program that allowed undocumented students to qualify for financial aid under a pool specifically designated for Mexican and Canadian students. After several changes were made to university policy in 2008, however, this pool was dispersed to fund international students. This made it much more difficult for undocumented students to enroll and spurred outrage among the student body.

In November 2011, a group of students wrote a letter to Cornell University President David Skorton calling for changes to university policy regarding undocumented students and claiming that undocumented students should not be blamed for their parents’ illegal move to the U.S. and should be considered Americans.

The letter, cosigned by David Angeles ’13, Luz Aceves ’14 and Jessica Perez ’13, stated, “Cornell has not taken any concrete action to support undocumented youth currently enrolled or attempting to enroll in our institution. Cornell University does not provide legal, emotional or additional financial support meant to address the dire and unique circumstances and needs of undocumented students.”

In response to student reaction, Skorton recently told the Student Assembly that he was determined to search for sources of funding for undocumented students.

“I don’t have an answer, but I am committed to finding a way and I have contacts both inside and outside the University,” Skorton said. “There’s a lot of constraints, but we’re thinking very heavily about what can be done.”

Despite efforts from the university to help students in the uniquely difficult situation, immediate challenges remain. Just this February Eric Hyun Jae Cheon ’12 told The Cornell Daily Sun that he, an undocumented student who is living in the U.S. illegally, must pay the University $10,000 in tuition owed for the fall semester or he will be forced to withdraw from the university.

“I was 12 years old when I first came here from Korea … My family came here to run a business, but the owner was a scammer who took our money and ran away,” Cheon told The Sun, explaining that his family had come to the U.S. and planned to stay with an E-2 visa, for which individuals running businesses can apply.

One of many undocumented students pursuing a higher education in the U.S., Cheon said he faces a constant battle with his finances. Struggling to pay tuition every semester, Cheon and others like him across the country hope that one day, a solution will come as a result of the joint efforts of students, university officials and powerful figures like the Silicon Valley tech giants.

Maria Minsker Maria Minsker Maria Minsker is a junior English and communication double major at Cornell University. She is an aspiring journalist who loves to travel, try foreign cuisines and watch reruns of old sitcoms.

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