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Financial barriers stop Latino students from attending college

By Yasmine Regester / June 24, 2016

Participants of the "Undocugraduation" for undocumented high school graduates gathered in Raleigh on May 19 to call for fairness and equal access to education in North Carolina. Photo courtesy Let's Learn NC

Participants of the “Undocugraduation” for undocumented high school graduates gathered in Raleigh on May 19 to call for fairness and equal access to education in North Carolina. Photo courtesy Let’s Learn NC

Spring is an exciting time for many high schoolers across the country, anticipating graduation and going to college, but not for all.

This time of year can be hard on students who have the grades, get accepted into college, but cannot afford to attend.

Organizations like Let’s Learn NC, have been calling attention to the thousands of undocumented students who graduate each year from North Carolina high schools but are unable to continue their education due to the extreme costs of out-of-state tuition and their inability to receive federal and state financial aid. North Carolina has an estimated 42,000 undocumented students in its school systems.

Operating under The American Friends Service Committee, Let’s Learn NC advocates for the same college tuition for all North Carolina students, in order to make higher education accessible to all state residents.

Maria Cortez, a former Guilford County Schools student, moved to the United States from Mexico in 1998 and is a 2014 graduate of Western Guilford High School. With a GPA of 4.2, and a solid resumé, Cortez was accepted into college. However, she soon realized that she would not be able to attend because as an undocumented student, she would be forced to pay out-of-state tuition and did not qualify for any state or federal aid.

“North Carolina should not limit students’ potential, and give all students the opportunity for higher education. Undocumented students want and need to go to college and contribute back to North Carolina’s economy,” said Cortez.

On May 19, 2016, undocumented students and allies from across North Carolina gathered at the North Carolina General Assembly to call for fairness, opportunity and equal access to education. These young people hoped to show legislators and their communities, that while graduating from high school is a major achievement, most will be unable to continue their education despite the fact that they have grown up in the state and meet the residency requirement for in-state tuition.

Cortez notes that allowing qualified, undocumented students entry to college under in-state fees can help strengthen the state’s future tax base, fill shortages in business, education and health services. She added that having a bilingual, educated workforce will also help the state economically and foster a rise in productivity.

So far 19 states have passed in state tuition for undocumented students. Currently, undocumented students in North Carolina are charged out of state tuition — which can be up to four times higher than in state tuition— even if they meet the same academic and residency requirement as other students, which includes a physical presence in NC for 12 continuous months.

On March 25, 2015, Senator Fletcher Hartsell (R-Concord) introduced Senate Bill 463 with bipartisan support, calling for any individual who has attended school in North Carolina for at least three consecutive years immediately prior to graduation and has received a high school diploma or a general education diploma (GED) in North Carolina be granted resident tuition status. SB 463 died in committee.

Christina Gallegos, a 2016 graduate of Asheboro High School with a 4.4 GPA was excited about filling out college applications until she realized that she had no way to afford school. Gallegos and her family moved to North Carolina from Mexico when she was seven years old, and while she has been a standout student ever since, finances have paused her journey to college.

“I was so upset,” said Gallegos. “To think that I worked so hard and put so much effort into building a good college resumé, and now it is all for nothing.”

Jose Sandoval, an advocate with Let’s Learn NC, noted that these students have no other avenue to pay for college except out of their own pockets.

“Students have to pay 3-4 times more than in-state tuition, students are sometimes waitlisted, and are left without options for federal or state grants,” said Sandoval who added that undocumented Guilford County students also do not qualify for the new Guilford County Schools college initiative, Say Yes To Education Guilford, which provides last dollar funds for high school students when they enroll and attend college.

With caregivers speaking little to no English, students are often left to navigate an education system that neither they nor their parents are familiar with. The Latino community has taken a lead on this issue; however, undocumented students of other ethnicities are also affected.

Sam (real name withheld), a 2015 Western Guilford graduate, came to the United States with his family from Nigeria at the age of four. While his parents also made education a priority in the household, because of his undocumented status, Sam is unable to attend college because the cost is just too much.

“I refuse to give up on the educational experience,” said Sam. “It has been trying, but you have to be strong and you have to be patient.”

Gallegos, who is interested in studying genetics in college, believes that the more people who speak out on this issue, the closer North Carolina legislators can agree on a solution.
“It is important that we all join together and fight for this cause, because we will accomplish so much more for Latino students by working together,” said Gallegos who will instead attend Randolph Community College in the fall, pursuing an associate degree in science. She plans to transfer to larger university.

After two years of working with the Latino Family Center of High Point YWCA, Cortez will finally be able to attend Wake Forest University in the fall, with the assistance of a Golden Door Scholarship, specifically for immigrant youth who have received DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), implemented via Executive Order by President Barack Obama.

Her advice for other Latino students struggling with financial restraints, “Don’t let anyone or anything discourage you from following your dreams. When it comes to citizenship, we are not defined by a piece of paper. We have to keep proving all these people wrong,” said Cortez.


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Since 1967, the Carolina Peacemaker has served as North Carolina’s leading news weekly with a national reputation. Founded by Dr. John Kilimanjaro, the newspaper is published by Carolina Newspaper, Inc.

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