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California achieves what the US federal government does not – a DREAM Act

On 8 October, California’s governor, Jerry Brown, signed into law the second of two bills which together constitute the California DREAM Act. DREAM stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. The laws are designed to provide access to certain institutional and state-level financial aid instruments for undocumented students in California who meet a specific set of criteria and wish to pursue higher education in the state. To be considered for these benefits, students must demonstrate that they have

  • attended three or more years of secondary school in California; 
  • graduated from a California secondary school (or demonstrate that they hold the equivalent of a California high school diploma); and 
  • filed a prescribed affidavit attesting to the fact that they are in the process of applying to legalise their immigration status in the United States.

The new law becomes effective on 1 January 2013 and has been welcomed by many in the American higher education community who were disappointed by the demise last year of a federal-level DREAM Act bill, which also included provisions in support of undocumented students in higher education (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, December 2011). In California (which hosts a very large population of illegal immigrants), certain undocumented students had already been allowed to enrol in higher education and authorised to pay lower in-state tuition rates applicable to other California residents. They could not, however, apply for financial assistance. The new law now allows for this benefit, although undocumented students are only eligible for monies from the so-called Cal Grant fund after the needs of legal residents have been met. Despite estimates that some 25 000 undocumented students graduate from high school in California each year, the governor’s office has indicated that only 2 500 or so undocumented students would be eligible to tap into Cal Grants, at a cost of USD 14.5 million (EUR), or 1% of the total fund.

The landscape for undocumented students looks different on the other side of the country, meanwhile. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a premier civil rights advocacy organisation in the United States, has filed a federal class action lawsuit in mid-October against the Florida commissioner of education and the Florida chancellor of the state university system, on behalf of several “aspiring college students” in that state. The suit charges that the students in question – who are US citizens and residents of Florida – are being unlawfully charged non-resident tuition rates because they cannot prove their parents are legally present in the US. In some cases, the non-resident tuition rates can be three or more times higher than those charged to residents.

Office of the Governor (California) California Dream Act