Dreamer scholarship would benefit thousands of undocumented students

By: - January 17, 2023 1:33 pm

Voters in November said that undocumented high school graduates should be able to access in-state tuition at Arizona universities and receive state-funded financial aid. Gov. Katie Hobbs wants to create a scholarship program aimed at those students. Photo via Northern Arizona University

More than 3,000 undocumented students in Arizona could see their dreams of a college degree come true under a new scholarship proposed by Gov. Katie Hobbs. 

Dubbed the Promise for Dreamers Scholarship Program, the $40 million dollar investment is  aimed at supporting undocumented students who’ve attended a high school in the state for at least two years. Scholarships from Hobbs’ program help fund four years at one of the state’s three public universities

The Hobbs administration estimates that as many as 3,113 undocumented students stand to benefit. Spokespeople for the Governor’s Office did not respond to questions about whether the funding is one-time or ongoing, but the more than 3,600 undocumented students who graduate from Arizona high schools every year could potentially see their entries into higher education eased if it’s a recurring resource. 

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The new scholarship program debuted in Hobbs’ State of the State speech last week, where she billed it as an extension of the aid granted to undocumented students by Proposition 308, which put them on par with their classmates by allowing them to pay in-state tuition and access state-funded financial help

For Reyna Montoya, CEO of Aliento, which helped shepherd the legislation that put Prop. 308 on the ballot, Hobbs’ plan helps bridge some of the federal gaps undocumented students still deal with. The passage of Prop. 308 improves their access to higher education, but it doesn’t resolve the inequality they face at the federal level. To fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which determines a student’s eligibility for low-income loans and scholarships like the Pell Grant, citizenship is a requirement.

“If you’re a low-income student, typically you have other supports, like the Pell Grant,” Montoya said. “If you’re a Dreamer, and you’re getting ready to graduate from high school, you’re still not eligible for FAFSA, and if you’re low-income and struggling, paying $11,000 at ASU is still pretty challenging.” 

Hobbs’ executive budget states that the new scholarship is intended to provide support for undocumented students who don’t have access to the Arizona Promise Program, a state-funded scholarship fund for low-income students seeking a university education that requires applicants to be Pell Grant eligible and can be renewed for four years. It covers in-state tuition and other school fees for a first-time university student’s education, after other scholarships have been applied and as long as they meet residency and GPA requirements. 

“Arizona Dreamers are barred from receiving eligibility for the Promise program,” the budget reads. “The creation of the Promise for Dreamers will allow the State to establish a financial aid program to support these students’ access to higher education.” 

Hobbs’ commitment to reach out to undocumented youth was heartening to hear, especially as someone who went through college during previous administrations that were more hostile to young immigrants seeking an education, Montoya said. Before Prop. 308, state law forced undocumented students to pay out-of-state rates, which often doubled their costs. In 2019, the Arizona Board of Regents, which governs the state’s universities, voted to cut that down to 150% of in-state tuition, which was a reprieve but still surpassed in-state fees. 

Montoya looks forward to sharing more options with the students she mentors instead of warnings she gave for years that it would be frustrating and, for many, near impossible to go to college. 

“Seeing the same heartache time after time — I get the chills to think that we can have different conversations with our students. We don’t have to tell them, ‘You’re going to have to navigate all these difficult pathways just to obtain an education,’” she said. 

Montoya is also hopeful that the scholarship will benefit the state’s future by creating a more educated workforce and helping to mitigate labor shortages. Arizona is currently grappling with teacher vacancies and faces a projected nursing shortage by 2030

“This would really help us close a lot of the workforce gaps that we have in the state,” she said, adding: “It’s in our benefit to see education as an investment rather than an expense.” 

Potential future benefits are a significant argument in favor of the scholarship, said Tyler Montague, chairman of the Yes on 308 campaign. 

“It’s a big payback. Everybody that we get through college — as compared to just high school — makes $650,000 to $1 million more over their lifetime, and they’re putting that money back into the economy. And they pay, on average, $380,000 more over their lifetime in taxes, which is a massive financial return,” he said, citing national studies.

Also important to consider are the social returns that college grads provide, Montague added.  People who earn a college degree are less likely to incur social costs, and are more involved in their communities. 

Montague hopes that the Republican-majority legislature gives the scholarship fund a fair shot, and keeps in mind the support that voters gave Prop. 308 as an indicator for the consensus around aiding undocumented youth in the state. 

“I would hope that the legislature takes their cue from (308) and acts accordingly,” he said. 

The proposition passed with a narrow 51% majority, but the approval across party lines was widespread, with as many as 27% of Republicans and 54% of Independents voting yes. Still, while Arizona voters agreed to level the playing field in university tuition rates, some Republican leaders in the legislature are balking at opening up access to state-funded scholarships. 

“Gov. KATIE HOBBS in her State of State stated that she would like to invest $40 million to help pay for illegal immigrants to attend college in Arizona,” tweeted House Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci. “What about LEGAL citizens of Arizona or any other state?” 

Hobbs’ budget proposal also includes an equivalent $40 million increase to the state’s existing Arizona Promise Program, which she estimated on Monday could benefit as many as 10,000 more students. Last year, 4,000 students benefited. 

While the underlying legislation of Prop. 308 found bipartisan support, and was proposed by a Republican state senator, Hobbs’ initiative may face an uphill battle in a statehouse with a more conservative bent to it. Enacting it through legislative channels isn’t her only option; she could resort to issuing an executive order or negotiate with the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s universities. It’s unclear, however, what path the governor’s office will take; they did not respond to questions about what strategies it might consider to create the new scholarship fund.

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Gloria Rebecca Gomez
Gloria Rebecca Gomez

Gloria Gomez joined the Arizona Mirror in August 2022. Prior to that, she wrote for the Mirror as the UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow. She has written for the Arizona Daily Star, the Arizona Republic and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She graduated in 2022 with bachelor's degrees in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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