Undocumented students struggle despite need blind financial aid process

22 mins read

Late last fall, just weeks before the first round of Early Decision admissions results were released to the class of 2019, the college made a drastic change to its admissions policy by deciding to review the applications of undocumented students in the domestic pool of applicants on a need-blind basis. Prior to this change in policy, undocumented applicants had been reviewed in the need-aware, international pool, where — though they had attended at least high school in the US — they competed with students from around the world for a more limited supply of need-based financial aid. Despite the magnitude of this policy change, one year later, the college has still done little to make this new policy publicly known. As increased financial accessibility drastically expands the number of undocumented students able to apply to the college, the muted nature of the admissions office’s announcement appears surprisingly furtive to some, perhaps indicating that the college may still be unprepared to handle the challenges of coordinating a full collegiate experience for individuals without documentation.

“This new policy is so great, so I honestly don’t know why Swarthmore hasn’t been more vocal in its policy changes,” said Miguel Gutierrez ’18. “Maybe they don’t want too many apps flooding into the application system, but at the same time they would get more competitive students. Maybe they don’t want too many students too quickly because they don’t know how to adapt to their needs.”

For Gutierrez, who applied to the college in 2013 and was thus reviewed in the international pool, making sense of the admissions process as an undocumented student was incredibly challenging. He explained that he relied almost exclusively on informal networks and admissions support groups for minority students in order to understand each school’s specific stance towards undocumented applicants, including Swarthmore’s.

“I was mostly navigating the process by myself,” Gutierrez said. “The people who were finding resources and communicating them made it easier. Knowing the right people and having the right resources is huge. It gives you a voice… The policy changes do not make it easier for undocumented students when Swarthmore isn’t vocalizing them.”

While the college recently added a page titled “Swarthmore College Policy on Undocumented Students” to the “Admissions and Aid” page on its website, Gutierrez explained that undocumented students are often hesitant to ask for admissions information given their desire to not disclose their citizenship status. Thus, if a college or university does not explicitly advertise its policies, such students are left largely uninformed of potential post-secondary opportunities.

In response to the lack of visibility surrounding the college’s changes to its admissions policies, many current undocumented students at the college have taken it upon themselves to inform their peers. After hearing last April that the college had officially changed its policies, Maria Castañeda ’18 explained that she used a Facebook page for students using the admissions access program QuestBridge to share the news.

“On that page there are a lot of undocumented students, and they’ll ask what schools will take them,” Castañeda said. “So now that I know that Swarthmore has changed its policy, I’ve been spreading the word to every undocumented student that shows up on the feed. At first nobody believed me because they said they hadn’t heard anything about it.”

Castañeda explained that given the uncertainty that already permeates the experience of being undocumented, the lack of publicity surrounding the policy change was frustrating, serving only to exacerbate the extent to which undocumented students feel left to their own devices to navigate the complexities of their citizenship status.

“This is a really difficult issue, and part of the reason it wasn’t written about was because no one asked,” said Wes Willison ’12, who worked as an admissions counselor at the college from 2012 until this past June. “This was something we had been talking about for a long time, but there is just a huge amount of complexity… Most people would look at admissions as people who control everything, but we just don’t. There are vast affiliations, connections, and politics that go into how decisions are made.”

Jim Bock ’90, Vice President and Dean of Admissions, agreed, explaining that perhaps the most significant motivating factor behind the college’s amendment to its policy was a change in federal immigration legislation – known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – which was announced by the Department of Homeland Security on June 15, 2012.

Under DACA, eligible childhood arrivals may receive prosecutorial discretion, preventing their forced removal from the US for a period of two years, subject to renewal. While DACA status does not provide lawful status, it does provide work eligibility, a social security number, the ability to apply for a credit card, and, in some states, the ability to apply for a driver’s license. Most importantly in regards to the college admissions process, any individual who is currently in school, has graduated from high school, or has obtained a GED certificate is eligible for DACA.

“This allows students to stay in the US without fear of deportation, and many of these deserving students might qualify for a Swarthmore education,” Bock said. “… Historically, undocumented students were considered in the ‘need aware’ pool with other international students requesting need-based aid, essentially competing for funds set aside for international students with need. Starting with the Class of 2019, undocumented and DACA students are reviewed in the domestic pool of applicants on a need-blind basis.”

Now that these qualified undocumented applicants are able to apply into the “need-blind” pool, they are eligible for significant benefits both in terms of financial outcomes and rates of admittance. While the college is able to provide need-blind financial aid to all domestic students, there are limited funds available for international students requiring financial support, thus increasing the level of competition for those most in need of aid.

“It didn’t matter what your best efforts as a reader would be because the space was just so slim,” Willison explained. “This year it was different. They were actually read next to all of the other American students. In the admissions process, that’s a big difference.”

For Castañeda — who like Gutierrez applied to the college in 2013 prior to the policy change — this increased level of competition was a daunting prospect because it felt as though her chances of admission were automatically diminished.

“The big problem is that if they looked at you on a need-aware basis, and if you couldn’t pay for it, you wouldn’t get in, regardless of how talented of a student you are,” Castañeda said. “I didn’t feel like I actually stood a chance. Instead I kind of felt the odds already being against me from the start.”

In addition to a higher level of competition, however, evaluation in the international pool also presented a number of financial challenges for undocumented applicants. In Castañeda’s case, despite having lived in the US since she was three years old, her “international” status in the admissions process rendered her ineligible to apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and thus solely reliant on the College Scholarship Service profile provided by the College Board.

“That was complicated because my parents work under the table, so I had to contact all of the schools that I was applying to and ask what their policies were,” Castañeda said. “It was a really huge hassle… It’s just a complicated thing because it means that only a select group of undocumented students can go to college. You have to be in the top ten percent. Anybody else who doesn’t have the test scores or the grades just kind of falls through the cracks.”

Gutierrez agreed.

“The whole college admissions process made it feel very divisive in that things were already going to be tougher for me,” Gutierrez said. “I didn’t have access to a lot of the same opportunities… All throughout the applications process, I was just another college applicant, but I felt like I was going to get treated equally, but under unequal circumstances.”

When Gutierrez and Castañeda applied, the college typically received anywhere between half a dozen and twenty or thirty applications from undocumented students each year. According to Willison, however, following the change in policy last year, more applications were submitted by undocumented students than ever before.

“Last year, we admitted more than we have ever admitted, and we were able to read their applications with more consideration and sincerity and purpose than we had previously,” Willison said. “As predicted, actually yielding those students was hard to come by… With undocumented students it’s tough to say what factors apply in their decision to matriculate. Are they not coming for financial reasons? Are they not coming because their parents don’t want them to leave the area? Are they not coming because they don’t know enough about the college? We’re asking ourselves, ‘How do you find these students and how do you support them on campus? How do you make sure that they are having successful experiences?’”

For undocumented students already at the college, considerations such as these play a significant role not only in their decision to matriculate, but also in their experience throughout their four years at the college. Gutierrez, for example, explained that even as a sophomore, he continued to grapple with the emotional and cultural challenges of being an undocumented student at the college.

“I feel like I spent most of freshman year adapting culturally and getting used to the change, and I’m still in the process of getting into that mindset of seeking out what opportunities I have and how to deal with the undocumented status that I have,” Gutierrez said. “It’s more like growing social capital first. That kind of undocumented culture doesn’t really exist here. People don’t talk about it. There’s not many people to relate to because it’s such a special circumstance. Even though we have here like cultural groups like Enlace, for example, my bonds to Mexico are stronger than most people that I know.”

Castañeda agreed, explaining that she was interested in forming a support group for undocumented students on campus, but has found it difficult given a lack of consistent administrative support and issues of confidentiality.

“When Dean Lili [Rodriguez] and Dean [Amer] Ahmed were here, they were really big supports for me, and I suggested that they just give my name and my email to the undocumented students on campus, so they could reach out to me, but then Dean Lili and Dean Ahmed left, and that never happened,” Castañeda explained. “It’s just because of confidentiality, I’m not allowed to know who is undocumented. It’s weird because you hear on the national scale the expression ‘living in the shadows,’ and then here it’s still very quiet.”

Willison also expressed concern over the effects of the high rates of administrative turnover at the college among the individuals most responsible for handling the concerns of undocumented students.

“I still have trepidations about how this looks for student health,” Willison explained. “Four years on a campus where you have had two or three administrators who are supposed to be helping you through is hard. You’re not from around here. You’re financially teetering on the edge of chaos. It’s a big deal.”

One area in which a lack of administrative preparedness has been particularly pronounced is in regards to study abroad. While both Castañeda and Gutierrez want to study abroad, they have found that there are few institutional frameworks in place to accommodate them. In order to re-enter the US after their period of study, undocumented students with DACA status must apply for Advanced Parole travel documents, which allow them to leave the country without lawful citizenship status and return after a designated period of time. The application is incredibly complex, takes months to get approved, and costs $365 in addition to the $500 biannual cost of DACA status renewal. Even with Advanced Parole travel documents, re-entry is not guaranteed and may be withheld by a US Customs Officer in certain circumstances.

“The regulations are vast,” explained Jennifer Marks-Gold, Director of International Students, who works with undocumented students to understand their financial aid packages and work and study abroad eligibility. “They have hurdles that domestic students can’t even fathom. If somebody wants to go abroad, they have to plan way in advance. It takes forever and it’s not guaranteed. It’s definitely a hardship for undocumented students.”

Castañeda explained that such legal and technical challenges involved with negotiating with the Department of Homeland Security are only exacerbated by the college administration’s lack of preparedness with these issues.

“I went to one of the study abroad information sessions, and afterwards I went up to some of the presenters, and I said ‘Have you guys ever dealt with undocumented students trying to go abroad?’ and she said, ‘Oh it’s funny you should ask that because we were just talking about how we were totally not ready to deal with this,’” Castañeda explained. “I’ve had to fill them in on what Advanced Parole is and how I can go abroad and come back — but once I told them the process, they were able to explain to me the places they could help me. It’s not like they don’t want to help, it’s just that they don’t know how yet because I’m one of the first. This option to study abroad didn’t even happen until three years ago with DACA.”

While Castañeda has actively pushed the administration for resources and information, Gutierrez has tried to navigate the process of college life and study abroad mostly on his own. He explained that aside from Castañeda, he does not feel as though many at the college can really understand his experiences as an undocumented student.

“The biggest challenge — especially moving here from Phoenix, Arizona — is that you have all the citizens there who are Mexican or of Mexican descent, and it feels like a safety net because in Phoenix there are lawyers aware of the immigration process,” Gutierrez said. “Here at Swarthmore, there isn’t that type of legal support. I’ve pretty much done it on my own… For example, there are a lot of legal complications involved with studying abroad, and although I’ve begun to look for help here, I’ve mostly sought help from home because I know immigration lawyers there who can check all of my information. Swarthmore hasn’t been a big part of the process at all.”

According to Bock, however, as the college looks to expand accessibility to such traditionally underrepresented demographics, more structures will be installed to better accommodate these students. This year, for the first time, undocumented students were able to be open about their citizenship status on the application for Ride the Tide, and recruitment efforts directed specifically towards undocumented students were undertaken in regions with historically large populations of undocumented students such as Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern California.

“At present, undocumented students have very few options for post-secondary education degrees in the United States… For a long time, counselors and students did not know how to ask about admission to any school without the fear of being exposed,” Bock said. “We are now able to be more public, and we hope more of these deserving and qualified students will consider an application to Swarthmore.”

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