Press Release

Without Access to State Financial Aid, A College Degree Remains Out of Reach for Many Undocumented New Jerseyans

2013’s tuition equity law has helped a few hundred students but cost remains huge barrier.

Published on Jul 18, 2016 in Economic Justice

Leading lawmakers, students and policy experts joined together today to call on the legislature and governor to build on the steps taken in 2013 to help undocumented students in New Jersey have a better shot at a college education.

The state boosted educational and economic opportunities for undocumented students living in the state by allowing them – if they met certain requirements – to pay in-state tuition rates instead of much higher out-of-state rates at public colleges and universities. This has clearly helped more undocumented New Jerseyans pursue a higher education, which will put them – and New Jersey – on a path towards greater economic opportunity. But the cost remains a huge barrier for these students and their families, who have lower-than-average incomes yet are blocked from accessing the need-based financial aid available to their low-income peers, a report released today by New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) finds.

“This is the other piece of the puzzle if we really want to help these students succeed and contribute to society,” said Assembly Budget Chairman Gary Schaer, the first prime sponsor of legislation to extend access to aid as part of the Tuition Equality Act. “Given the ever-escalating costs, many students, even with in-state tuition rates, are finding college more and more financially unattainable. Making this assistance available will make higher education a reality for these aspiring students.”

NJPP has tracked enrollments of tuition equity students since the policy went into effect in the Spring 2014 semester. In the third and fourth semesters under the law, the number of enrolled undocumented students continued to climb, to 407 in Spring 2015 and 577 in Fall 2015 from 138 students in the Spring 2014 semester. But even though enrollment has increased, 577 students – out of more than 145,000 total undergraduate enrollees – is still a tiny sliver (less than one half of 1 percent, in fact) of total enrollment.

Given the high costs of even in-state rates (Rutgers University tuition and fees are over $14,000 a year at the flagship New Brunswick campus) and the low incomes of New Jersey’s undocumented families (average estimated family income is $34,500, compared to $113,394 for all Garden State families), it’s no wonder so few students are enrolling. With these students unable to access federal need-based aid, access to state aid is even more important.

“We’re seeing the number of students enrolled under tuition equity grow, but not by enough. Even with in-state rates, costs at four-year colleges are out of reach for many undocumented families,” said NJPP policy analyst Erika Nava. “New Jersey should follow the lead of eight other states, from progressive California to conservative Texas, and allow these students to apply for aid. This would put them – and the whole state – on a path towards greater economic opportunity.”

But the case for true tuition equity with access to financial aid doesn’t stop at the need of these striving students and their families. It’s also a common-sense investment for the state of New Jersey. As it stands now, New Jersey taxpayers already spend tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of dollars on the primary and secondary educations of these students. Yet when they graduate high school, the state drops them off a cliff by keeping a college degree – and the increased earnings and reinvestment in the state that entails – unnecessarily out of reach.

“No sensible business would invest tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in training its workers and then lay them off, but that’s effectively what New Jersey is doing to striving high school graduates by denying them Tuition Aid Grants and other forms of assistance,” said NJPP President Gordon MacInnes. “Such denials harm students and their families and New Jersey’s economy.”

That point was driven home by the story of Money Othatz, a recent graduate of Dover High School and honor student who was accepted to many four-year universities but will have to start at community college instead due to lack of access to financial aid.

“We should be able to get financial aid like our fellow classmates, since our parents paid taxes as well,” Othatz said. “Give us the chance to work hard and chase our dreams, so we can better contribute to our home of New Jersey.”