The state of Washington could soon become the fourth in the nation -- after California, Texas and New Mexico -- to allow the children of illegal immigrants to qualify for state-funded college financial aid.
The idea has now passed both the Washington House and Senate. But allowing undocumented students to compete for these limited dollars is still a thorny issue for some - especially since the program is already seriously underfunded.
"A huge blessing"
Rachel Irish, a 35-year old pre-nursing student at South Puget Sound Community College, went back to school after her husband lost his business and they lost their home. The couple and their three children are now on food stamps.
“We’ve just had a series of hard things," she says. "But you know what? We’re survivors.”
Irish tears up as she explains the only reason she can afford tuition is because of a federal education grant.
“It is a humongous blessing," she says. "A huge blessing.”
Last year, Irish also received a Washington State Need Grant to supplement her federal one. It was money that helped cover other school-related costs.
But this year that check didn’t arrive. That’s because the $300 million a year program only has enough money to fund seven out of 10 qualified students.
Washington’s Need Grant program is more than 40 years old. It’s for students whose families make less than 70 percent of the median state income. That’s about $58,000 dollars per year for a family of four.
Prior to the Great Recession, the Need Grant program served almost all comers.
The Great Recession and a big funding gap
But when the economy tanked, the unemployed flooded back to school. At the same time, tuition at Washington’s public universities and colleges went up by double digits to offset state budget cuts.
That double whammy strained the Need Grant program even though Washington lawmakers continued to increase the funding. By 2009, the pool of eligible students was quickly outpacing the available funds.
Now, Washington lawmakers are poised to add another 800 or so undocumented high school graduates to the pool. And that troubles Irish.
“I agree that everybody should get an opportunity," she says. "But I just don’t think it’s fair for people who have been living here legally. I just really don’t."
Last year, 32,000 low-income students in Washington who were eligible for a Need Grant did not get one. This funding gap was a key reason why state Sen. Barbara Bailey, a Republican who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, said she initially opposed expanding the program to include undocumented students.
“Adding more to that pool of students in my opinion was a false promise,” she says.
Real hope or just dreaming?
But Bailey recently found a way to embrace what supporters call the “Dream Act.” She got behind a plan to add $5 million to the pot. She says this additional money will keep the funding gap from getting worse.
“This Act is the 'Real Hope Act,'" Bailey says. "No more Dreams. This is real hope.”
But is it real hope? Another Republican senator was more skeptical.
“Let’s be realistic. It’s not going to solve the problem," said Sen. Curtis King, from Yakima. "It may help a few of them. But it’s not going to help all of them.”
That’s because it’s essentially a wash. The extra $5 million will just cover the cost of expanding eligibility. But it won’t change the fact that three in 10 students who qualify will still be left behind.
Even so Dulce Siguenza is happy to take those odds. She’s one of the students who would qualify if the expansion passes into law.
“I was born in Oaxaca, Mexico," she says. "I came to the U.S. with my parents when I was 11 years old.”
Siguenza is now 19 and has what’s known as DACA status which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It’s an Obama administration program that allows children who came to the United States illegally with their parents to work and defer deportation for two years at a time, as long as they meet certain criteria.
Siguenza is currently a psychology student at South Seattle Community College. She says she was devastated last year when she had to leave the University of Washington because it was too expensive.
“Transferring to South Seattle Community College from my dream university was harsh," says Siguenza. "And I still get emotional when I talk about it.”
Siguenza says if she got a State Need Grant she could return to the UW.
“It’s a real hope,” she says.
I ask her if she understands and acknowledges that it’s not a guarantee.
“I do, I do," she says. "But do you prefer giving students hope or leave them hopeless?”
On the day the Washington State Senate voted on the “Real Hope Act,” more than one senator invoked Dulce Siguenza’s story.
“She wants to be a Husky, she wants to wear Purple and Gold," said Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson.
That was followed by the Majority Leader Rodney Tom saying, “All of us here should make sure that Dulce makes it back to the University of Washington.”
A matter of fairness?
The fact Siguenza and other students like her could soon qualify for a Need Grant represents a major victory for immigrant rights advocates in Washington state. Ricardo Sanchez, from the Latino Educational Achievement Project, believes this policy change will pay off in the years ahead -- and not just for the students.
“You know kids who don’t have hope, they get angry and they begin taking that out in various ways," says Sanchez. "This is good for our society.”
But Rachel Irish at South Puget Sound Community College is still troubled. She thinks if the Washington legislature has $5 million more to spend on the program, it should first go to the 32,000 students like her who already qualify for the grant, but aren’t getting it.
“I don’t think it’s right," she says. "I really think that there’s so many other students in need. Right now. I mean there’s many, many people.”
At least one state senator agrees. Janea Holmquist Newbry, a Republican from an eastern Washington county that’s nearly 40 percent Latino, has introduced legislation that would give lawful residents priority over undocumented students.
“Let’s have them go to the back of the line instead of being able to go into the front of line and bump these kids that have already been waiting, ” says Holmquist Newbry. She says this is a matter of fairness for immigrant students who have obtained legal status.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree long term they need to address the broader funding gap. But that is likely part of a larger discussion about the state of higher education in Washington.