At a time of heightened fear of deportation, fewer undocumented students in California are requesting financial aid from the state under a pioneering six-year-old law, raising alarms at high school and college campuses about the effect on enrollment in higher education.
So far, only 233 Santa Rosa Junior College students have applied for aid under the California Dream Act, a drop of 40 percent over applications submitted by this time last year, said Pedro Avila, SRJC’s vice president of student services.
This year’s deadline for applicants is Thursday at midnight, and Avila worries that a reduction in applications could mean a corresponding drop in enrollment for the college, which has steadily increased the share of minority and foreign-born students on its campus in recent years. Roughly 480 undocumented students are currently enrolled at SRJC, about a quarter fewer than last semester, according to the college.
“That’s a big concern for us,” Avila said about the drop in aid applications. “They are part of the diversity on campus. We care for them just like we do for all our students.”
One factor driving the decline, according to Avila and other school officials: Students fear they’ll be outed to the federal government, as President Donald Trump’s administration signals its intent to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
State officials have pledged to safeguard personal information to protect students, but would-be applicants are nevertheless nervous about disclosing their status, Avila said.
“They’re hearing the stories about the raids,” he said. Federal immigration authorities have disputed such accounts, describing enforcement actions in the state as routine — and reporting none in Sonoma County as of last week.
Nonetheless, Avila said, foreign-born students are “feeling targeted.”
Worried about a “dramatic drop” in applications, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley urged students at its 113 campuses statewide to apply for state financial aid. He pointed to numbers released by the California Student Aid Commission as a concern.
Roughly 25,000 applications had been filed as of Tuesday, said Patti Colston, a spokeswoman for the state agency. That’s about a 27 percent decrease from the 34,000 applications submitted last year.
Colston said submissions had been steadily rising since the inception of the California Dream Act, which was signed into law in 2011. This is the first time applicant numbers have dropped, she said.
In his statement last week, Oakley said, “it’s apparent that the national conversation surrounding immigration and deportation has created an environment that is confusing and threatening to many of our students.” However, he urged students to submit their applications before the midnight deadline March 2.
State Superintendent of Public Education Tom Torlakson released a similar statement last week, urging educators to remind their high school students and their families about the importance of the program, which could provide students with thousands of dollars for college through grants and scholarships. Torlakson said the California Dream Act opens “the door to a college education for many deserving students.”
Although Sonoma State University doesn’t track the number of applicants year to year, university officials say they’ve been reaching out to students who submitted applications last year to reapply and remind them about the state and college’s commitment to keep their information private. About 50 students still needed to apply as of late last week, said Susan Gutierrez, director of financial aid and veteran services