For many students, achieving a college degree turns on their ability to pay the costs of college.
Having the means to pay for college is even more critical for undocumented students who, due to their immigration status, are ineligible for federal and state financial aid. Additionally, because such students are not considered residents, they are not eligible for in-state tuition in many states. Fortunately, thanks to a Florida law passed in 2014, many such students now qualify for in-state tuition and can achieve their college and career goals.
Emiliano Morales Flores is one such student.
As a native of Monterrey, Mexico, Emiliano moved to Polk County with his parents at age 16. “There was never really a question as to whether I would go (to college), but where I would go and what I would do,” Emiliano said. Prior to moving to the U.S. in 2012, Emiliano’s father had worked as an engineer in Mexico. Additionally, Emiliano’s older sister had gotten a postgraduate degree in the U.S. after earning a bachelor’s degree in Mexico.
Yet despite Emiliano’s strong grades and a support system of adults aiding him with his college and career plans, including an AP English teacher who helped him with his college essays, his path to college was uncertain because of the cost.
“Every one of my peers was either a (U.S.) citizen or immigrant like me, but they weren’t planning to go to college, so I didn’t feel like I had a lot of people in my situation I could turn to for guidance,” said Emiliano. “My sister had come here for her postgraduate (degree), which is completely different. And my parents couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting scholarships.”
Programs and resources for undocumented students
Programs and resources do exist for some groups of undocumented students. In 2012, then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order to grant eligible undocumented youth with government protection from deportation and the ability to legally seek employment and higher education through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
However, there are several eligibility requirements to qualify for DACA, including a provision requiring individuals to have continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007. Since Emiliano and his family arrived in the U.S. in 2012, he was ineligible for the program, as well as for scholarships supporting DACA students.
Discovering Florida House Bill 851
But Emiliano refused to let himself fall between the cracks.
After several weeks of independent online research, Emiliano learned about Florida House Bill 851.
Passed in 2014, Florida House Bill 851 waives out-of-state tuition fees for some undocumented students, allowing them to attend Florida colleges and universities at the same cost as state residents. To qualify, students must apply to college within two years of their high school graduation and submit a transcript proving they attended a Florida high school for a least three consecutive years.
Emiliano arrived in the U.S. just in time to meet the statute’s requirements: he began attending Ridge Community High School in Davenport during his sophomore year and graduated three years later in 2015.
Emiliano’s discovery of the statute meant a college degree was now within reach for him. He enrolled at the University of South Florida (USF), saying that because of the out-of-state tuition waiver from HB 851 “I could afford it and it let me ‘go away’ for college while still being kind of close to home.”
Emiliano isn’t the only student who has benefited from the statute. During the first year of HB 851’s implementation, 2,475 students attending 31 public colleges and universities in Florida utilized the out-of-state tuition waiver.
Getting support at the University of South Florida
With the tuition waiver, Emiliano estimates his USF education cost about $30,000.
For the 2019-20 school year at USF, tuition and fees alone for full-time, out-of-state undergraduate students is $17,324 compared to $6,410 for in-state students, a difference of 63% that can make or break college access for students like Emiliano.
Emiliano said his parents had saved for his college education since his childhood, which also helped cover the costs. He paid for the rest of his college education with additional help from his family and by working throughout his time at USF, including as a resident assistant on the university’s Tampa campus.
He was also able to take advantage of USF’s student support services, such as career counseling at USF Career Services beginning his freshman year. The summer before his senior year, a counselor even helped connect Emiliano with an internship that led to his first full-time job after graduation.
Emiliano, now 23, became a U.S. permanent resident in June 2017, between his second and third year at the University of South Florida. Upon graduating from USF with a bachelor’s degree in Economics, Emiliano spent a year as an analyst for the company where he interned. This summer, he relocated to Washington, D.C., where he recently started work as a job market analyst with a major commercial property company.
“I’m super thankful that my parents started saving when I was a kid,” Emiliano said. “I’m really glad I found out about that bill (HB 851)…I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t found that.”