When Carlos Martinez, an undocumented college student who lives in Contra Costa County, checked his bank account last Sunday he could not believe what he saw. Like at the start of most college semesters, he logged on to his account expecting to see a bill for close to $500, payment for his courses at the City College of San Francisco. But this time, the account showed a bill for only $23.
“I logged out and logged back in again, and the $23 was still there,” he said. “It hit me. I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’”
The dramatic decrease in fees for Martinez and other students like him is one of many changes for undocumented students since the second part of the California Dream Act went into effect on Jan. 1.
The first part of the act allowed undocumented students to receive private scholarships to fund their college education, while the second means more financial assistance for the state’s college-bound undocumented students.
Of this group, those planning to attend community college now qualify for a Board of Governors Fee waiver, a complete enrollment fee remission. For undocumented students like Martinez—left with only books and supplies to pay for—college could become more affordable. It could also mean more time hitting the books and less time struggling to make ends meet with a part-time job.
For many of Martinez’s undocumented friends, the pressure to earn money to help their families has meant college was not even a possibility. That, he said, could change. “There’s going to be more options for them in terms of them getting to community college and not worrying about their tuition,” he said.
The bill also benefits those students who forego community college in pursuit of a four-year degree. These students are now eligible to receive state financial aid through Cal Grants and Chafee Grants. Undocumented students currently attending, or who have attended (for at least three years) a California high school, graduated from a California high school or filed for legal immigration status—are also eligible to pay in-state tuition.
The annual aid is capped at $12,192.
In places like Richmond, helping students figure out what they do and do not qualify for means that community resources are crucial.
Carlos Martinez works with CLOUD, Community Leaders Organizing Undocumented Dreamers, an activist group in the city that fights for issues relevant to its undocumented young people. The group hopes to add a Dream Act component to its many deferred action workshops.
Like Martinez, many members of CLOUD are students at local community colleges. With newfound financial support from the state government, Martinez said he sees more students turning down full time work after high school in favor of getting a degree.
“There are definitely going to be waves of undocumented students now who will be pursuing a higher education,” Martinez said.
At local schools like Richmond High School and Kennedy High School, groups like The Gooden College Connection work to help students prepare for college, but the new legislation means providing additional resources for the undocumented group and helping them file the complicated paperwork before the deadline approaches on March 2.
Overall, though, it means helping more students realize their dream of going to college, said Andrew Gooden, founder of The Gooden College Connection.
“Before January, we had a number of students who were very bright and we wanted to send them along to college, but they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t qualify for student aid,” he said. “So we figure, this is a good thing to latch on to and get started.”
Resources like these are crucial to helping undocumented high school students navigate the path to college, Martinez said.
“Most of the time these students, like myself, are the first generation that are going to college, and their parents don’t know how to deal with the school system,” he said.
Martinez, who has worked in community organizing since he started at City College of San Francisco, said that he recognizes that the new legislation is a step forward for undocumented students. It is also an opportunity to reflect on all that he and his peers in CLOUD have accomplished.
“When you’re an organizer, you have to have patience,” he said. “You’re not going to see results right away. But Sunday night at 2 a.m. I was able to see the results of all of our hard work.”