Florida students unable to document citizenship for themselves or their parents may lose their Bright Futures college scholarships because of a new paperwork requirement.
Due to a change in the law, students who qualify for the lottery-funded merit scholarship must now fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Most students complete the form online – and a valid social security number is required for it to work.
The change has created a chilling effect among undocumented students and stirred debate over whether colleges and universities should be put in positions to scrutinize immigration status. Even students who are here legally say they’re afraid to fill out the form because it might tell federal authorities that their parents are illegal immigrants.
The single sentence requiring the FAFSA was included in a 71-page bill approved in May. It raises SAT and ACT requirements and community service hours needed to qualify for the scholarship.
The Daytona Beach Republican behind the proposal said she had no idea it would affect immigrant families.
State Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach, runs the budget committee overseeing higher education. She said her goal is to collect better data on Bright Futures students.
Lynn wants to disprove the belief that the parents are buying BMWs for their Bright Futures students with money they would have otherwise spent on college.
“We always intended for everyone to fill out the FAFSA form,” Lynn said. “We have no data on these students at all.”
But college officials are starting to hear from students who are concerned they may lose their scholarship. Bright Futures awarded scholarships to 177,612 students during the 2009-2010 school year, according to the program.
“The decision was made. And whether or not that was intentional or not, it is jeopardizing these funds for this particular category of students,” said Billie Jo Hamilton, who works in the University of South Florida’s financial aid office.
“So we will see how this all plays out. But we do have concerns this will keep undocumented students from receiving Bright Futures,” she said.
‘Surrogate Immigration Officials’
State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, was one of three to vote against the bill. Sobel said she opposed the possibility of denying scholarship to legal students who are the children of illegal immigrants. She argues the state was also asking schools to enforce federal immigration law.
“I don’t think colleges and universities were in favor of this form. Because they could have done this anyway instead of having the state mandate it,” Sobel said. “They’re like surrogate immigration officials now. And I don’t think that colleges and universities want to get into that.”
University of Florida junior Leena has seen the scrutiny. Leena — an alias to protect her family — speaks confidently, but said she gets the same feeling at her college financial aid office as she does in airport security.
Leena and her family fled Trinidad 14 years ago. Their asylum requests were rejected, so they’re here illegally.
“The first time I walked in there I was terrified,” Leena said. “I was so careful about everything that I said because I was afraid I would say something that set off an alarm, and they’d be like ‘Oh my gosh, this person isn’t a resident’ and they’d call the cops on me.”
When she graduated from high school, she met all the academic requirements for the Bright Futures scholarship. She debated whether she should apply.
“But then I came to realize that everyone who works in there doesn’t know anything about immigration,” she said. “I could say something about an I-40 or some immigration form and they wouldn’t know what I was talking about.”
Leena got the Bright Futures scholarship that covers about half of her tuition. The scholarship is what allowed her to attend college, and Leena said she is afraid she might lose Bright Futures.
Varying Levels of Scrutiny
Even before the new law took effect, state law already required students to prove their state residency. To be a state resident, a student must be here legally.
“I was so careful about everything that I said because I was afraid I would say something that set off an alarm, and they’d be like ‘Oh my gosh, this person isn’t a resident’ and they’d call the cops on me.”
-University of Florida junior Leena
But it’s usually up to untrained college officials to determine if a student is here legally. Until now, they had no easy way of knowing whether a social security number was valid.
About 95 percent of students file a FAFSA online. The system confirms the applicant’s Social Security number instantly, similar to the E-Verify system used by employers.
But there is a way around the electronic form – a paper application. Instead of submitting an actual Social Security number a student could just enter nine zeroes on the form.
The Florida Department of Education has recommended the technique using paper forms, Hamilton said.
On July 21, the DOE sent a memo to college financial aid officials about this very issue.
In bold, it says, “Students are still required to meet residency requirements” and places that responsibility squarely on financial aid officials at the college level.
But it also allows those officials to use an “override code” for students who are unable to otherwise submit a FAFSA form.
Other States, Different Takes
Florida is not the only state that tries to keep illegal immigrants from receiving merit-based scholarships. All of the nine states with widespread merit scholarships require proof of citizenship or state residency.
Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and West Virginia require the FAFSA, while Georgia, Kentucky, New Mexico and South Carolina do not.
Georgia colleges require students to prove their citizenship in other ways, said Georgia Student Finance Commission spokesman Tracy Ireland. She said the state has its own electronic application, and therefore does not require the FAFSA form.
Citizenship is also a requirement of Kentucky’s scholarship program. But Becky Gilpatrick from the state’s Higher Education Assistance Authority said some out-of-state residents or illegal immigrants may receive scholarships because reviews are left to schools.
“We don’t have systematic checks,” Gilpatrick said. “We don’t really tell them (colleges) how to do their business.”
Kentucky rejected use of the FAFSA, Gilpatrick said, because the state did not want to add additional barriers to a scholarship program serving nearly 70,000 students each year.
It’s not just illegal immigrants who are affected by the requirement.
Caroline, 18, is from Miami and recently graduated from high school and qualifies for Bright Futures. Caroline is a citizen, but her father is an illegal immigrant and now she’s afraid to apply. Students under the age of 24 must use their parents’ financial information when filling out the FAFSA.
“I really need all the aid I can get, but I’m obviously not going to do anything to get my dad in trouble,” she said.
“That’s not the intention,” Lynn said of targeting undocumented students or parents.
Lynn said the state would analyze which students qualified for Bright Futures and whether they chose not to fill out the FAFSA form. With Bright Futures a rising cost to the state, Lynn had little sympathy for students who could not or declined to submit a FAFSA for whatever reason.
“If that’s the way they feel,” she said, “perhaps they don’t need it.”
StateImpact Florida reporter Sarah Gonzalez contributed to this story.