Guest presenters:

  • Luz Corcuera, Executive Director, UnidosNow
  • Daniel Barkowitz, Assistant Vice President Financial Aid/Veterans Affairs, Valencia College
  • Pedro Hernandez, Director of Outreach Services, Office of Student Financial Assistance, Florida Department of Education
  • Oscar Portillo, student, University of South Florida

FCAN host:  Kathy McDonald, Assistant Director for Network Partnerships

On December 14, FCAN hosted a webinar focusing on undocumented students and the uniquely challenging path they face on their way to college, as well as some of the financial aid opportunities available to help get them there.

To help illustrate that journey, the webinar also featured input from college student Portillo, who went from discovering he was undocumented during the college-going process to currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of South Florida.

“There were so many people around me who were willing to both advocate on my behalf and connect me with the right resources and the right people so I could accomplish my dream of going to college,” Portillo said of his college-going journey.

Undocumented students in higher education

According to a 2020 study by New American Economy and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education, there are an estimated 454,000 undocumented students in postsecondary education across the U.S. Florida ranks third in the U.S., trailing only California and Texas in the number of undocumented students in higher education: about 42,000 undocumented college students live in Florida, making up about 3% of the state’s higher education student population.

Luz Corcuera is the Executive Director of UnidosNow, a Manatee County-based nonprofit that seeks to elevate the quality of life of the growing Hispanic/Latino community through education, integration, and civic engagement.

Corcuera noted that many college-bound undocumented students are brought to the U.S. by their parents at a young age and have attend elementary, middle, and high school alongside their U.S.-born peers.

“They identify as Americans, and they’re American in every way, except not having a piece of paper,” Corcuera said. Her organization helps students like Portillo achieve their education dreams by connecting them with free resources and providing support with their college essays and entrance exams. “Undocumented students can dream big and aim high.”

Portillo added that UnidosNow “helped me connect with the necessary resources so I could understand the process and end up at the right institution.”

Financial aid opportunities for non-U.S. citizens

Daniel Barkowitz, Assistant Vice President of Financial Aid and Veterans Affairs for Valencia College, outlined some of the financial aid avenues available to undocumented students who want to pursue education beyond high school.

“People assume that just because you’re not a (U.S). citizen that won’t quality for aid, and that’s just not true,” Barkowitz said. “There are lots of exceptions that fall under the eligible non-citizen category.”

He also warned against lumping all non-U.S. citizens into the same group, since some qualify for certain financial aid. For instance, “eligible non-citizens” — including residents with green cards or those who hold a T-visa for victims of human trafficking — qualify for all types of federal and state financial aid. Meanwhile, “international students” — someone coming in from another country to attend college on a visa — may qualify for institutional aid.

Barkowitz also shared resources and tips for students who fall outside the eligible non-citizen and international student categories, including private and foundation scholarship opportunities like TheDream.US.

Portillo said he encountered unexpected financial barriers related to his undocumented status upon arriving in college, including a requirement that he have health insurance. He estimates he was able to save $2,000-$3,000 on health insurance by doing some research and discovering a more cost-effective policy than the one the university offered.

Why all students should complete the Florida Financial Aid Application

Pedro Hernandez, Director of Outreach Services for the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Student Financial Assistance, said there are several reasons all students — including undocumented students who do not qualify for state aid — should complete the Florida Financial Aid Application (FFAA), which allows students to access a variety of state grants and scholarships such as Bright Futures.

Hernandez highlighted the Bright Futures rule stating that if a scholarship award is not funded in the academic year immediately following a student’s high school graduation, that same student can apply within five years of their high school graduation to have their award reinstated.

“That’s why it is vitally important students understand that, even though they cannot receive Bright Futures funding at the present time, they may still quality (in the future) if they meet all the requirements and submit an (FFAA) application,” said Hernandez, noting that a student’s documented or citizenship status could change within those same five years. Current Bright Futures rules state that if a student does not complete the FFAA by August 31 following their high school graduation, they lose the ability to access those funds forever.

In the meantime, Portillo continues to pursue his college education while strongly advocating for increased supports for undocumented students.

“To me, this is a non-partisan issue,” Portillo said. “Our communities are stronger and better than ever when they have everyone contributing.”

Show Notes

To learn more about supporting undocumented students — or to view the recording and download the presentation — take advantage of these resources:

Financial Aid and Undocumented Students – Questions and Answers (Federal Student Aid
Undocumented Students FAQ (Valencia College)

Be sure to visit our Past Webinars page for access to recordings and downloadable material from FCAN’s previous presentations.

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