Web Extra! Financial Aid Challenges for Political Asylee and Refugee Students

 
By David Tobenkin

This is a Web Extra! for the September/October 2006 issue of International Educator.

It complements the article: "Escape to the Ivory Tower."

For refugee and asylee students, acceptance into a school of higher education often means little if they cannot secure financial aid.

"Financial aid is a big issue for people," says Kathleen Moccio, an immigration attorney and director of pro bono development at the Washington, DC-based American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Many people who’ve applied for asylum may be admitted to schools, but they are not eligible for federal funding until they receive asylee status. They don’t have a lot of resources. They flee with next to nothing and their inability to go on with education or take on loans is problematic. In private practice, I worked with a woman who was an asylum applicant who wanted to go to school to finish a nursing degree. She couldn’t do it because she couldn’t get loans or scholarships and there was no way to afford it. Then she got asylee status, got financial aid, was able to get her degree, and finally was able to work in the field."

The varying tuition rates at Montgomery College provide an example of just how much permanent resident status can save applicants. Citizens and permanent residents who have three months residency in the county qualify as being domiciled there and receive Montgomery County tuition rates, roughly $3,700 annually for a full load. Students domiciled outside the county but in the state pay twice that. Out-of-state students pay three times as much.

For financial aid purposes, most state-funded institutions have in-state residency requirements to qualify for in-state tuition, Yale-Loehr says. Administrators must then look at each state’s law with respect to how "residency" or like concepts are measured.

"How they measure it is usually based on physical presence or immigration status," Yale-Loehr says. "I would hope, but don’t know for every state, that if an asylee or refugee meets the applicable physical presence requirement, and the student has that status, they qualify for in-state tuition."

Yale-Loehr says that there are some arguments that under the Equal Protection Clause of, and the Fourteenth Amendment to, the United States Constitution, asylees and permanent residents could argue that federal and state laws establish their right to receive financial aid in the same manner as citizens. However, Yale-Loehr adds that there are no restrictions to limits placed upon purely private funds offered by some public institutions, or most funds at private institutions.

Some students fall victim to the vagaries of the asylum process and are forced to sit out another academic year even if they receive asylum status. "Sometimes the timing gets difficult for the student," says Montgomery College’s Helberg. "It can be granted too late for them to get money for that academic year."

Similarly, and related to the documentation problem noted above, is that even if asylees are acknowledged to be eligible, they often encounter problems in completing required forms because of a lack of credit history, work history, and access to parent income that U.S. applicants have, Spivack says. Ironically, needs-based tests for aid can sometimes work against them because immigrants must often work vigorously to support themselves once they arrive and they may therefore exceed needs-based maximums.

Despite their lack of residential and educational background, many refugees and asylees have received federal student loans, which they can qualify for because the loan programs don’t require credit checks, says Melissa Gregory, director of student financial aid at Montgomery College. She also says such students can take advantage of federal work study programs and federally and locally subsidized jobs on campus of up to 15 hours per week.

Some private sources of scholarships also exist. At the exclusive end is a very selective scholarship fund, the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. Thirty fellowships are granted annually to fund up to two years of graduate study in the United States on a nationally competitive basis. Applicants must either have a bachelor’s degree or be in their final year of undergraduate study and not be older than 30 years of age, says Soros Fellowships Director Warren Ilchman. Recipients receive a maintenance grant of $20,000 (paid in two installments) and a tuition grant of one-half the tuition cost of the U.S. graduate program attended by the Fellow (up to a maximum of $16,000 per academic year).

Some individual schools also have refugee and asylee scholarships. Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, recently began offering a new New American Students Scholarship to applicants with refugee or asylee status, says Carol Moran-Brown, director of counseling and international student services at Champlain. Recipients receive funds to help defray the regular tuition and fee costs of $16,250, she says.