Putting Education Reform To The Test

No Papers, No Scholarship: Undocumented Students Could Lose Out

Photo provided by Leena

University of Florida junior received a Bright Futures scholarship despite being an illegal immigrant.

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.

Unintended Consequence

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.

The Florida Senate

State Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach, heads the higher education budget committee

“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.”

The Florida Senate

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, opposed changing Bright Futures.

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.


  • Anonymous

    Haven’t they been watching the news? This country is broke and I personally don’t care what the

    colleges want. They, too, use taxpayer money. NO PAPERS; NO SCHLORSHIP IS ONE OF THE




    • Linda Smith

      Apparently you can not spell either. NO SCHLORSHIP At least these students have some level of higher intelligence than yours and only want to progress. My daughters friend is undocumented and we have witnessed her struggles and our very proud for her. Unlike some legal children she cares about the community, her studies, and future. Oh, I would like to point out some undocumented pay federal tax while we ALL pay state tax. 

  • Kmh169

    Why are these people getting money for college in the first place? Save the money for US citizens! And by the way, children born to illegal people should NEVER be considered citizens.

  • Dave in Tampa

    In this report, it is stated that it is against the law for illegal aliens to receive Bright Futures scholarships. Then, it states that the illegal alien student received a Bright Futures scholarship.

    Now, she is not just guilty of being an illegal alien, she is guilty of defrauding the government of the state of Florida.

    Did the reporters contact the authorities and report this crime? I doubt it, but they should have and they should be held accountable as accessories after the fact.

    • Sarah Gonzalez

      The undocumented student who received Bright Futures never provided any false documents in order to qualify. She met all of the academic requirements, and financial aid and admissions officials at her University determined that she was eligible. At the time, Leena did not know that Bright Futures is not supposed to go to students like her. She found this out the following year, and she no longer receives the scholarship.

      It has always been the decision and responsibility of higher education officials in Florida to determine Florida residency for the purposes of Bright Futures. The state determines academic eligibility only.

    • Alegalservices

      Report this crime to authorities? These AUTHORITIES are the ones that granted the scholarship……uuh….don’t you think they know?? THINK BEFORE SPEAKING!!!

  • Mary Beth Rodd

    The Bright Future scholarships sould be ONLY for citizens. The Illegal students take dolars away from US citizens trying to attend college.

  • Anonymous

    Ms. Gonzalez— Your reporting is mind-numbing! You state: “By law, undocumented immigrants are not supposed to get the state aid [the Bright Futures Scholarshp].” Then you go on to imply that illegal immigrants may be prevented from partaking of something they are not legally entitled to receive—- THAT’S THE POINT— THEY ARE NOT LEGALLY ENTITLED TO RECEIVE IT!!! You just said that by law they cannot receive it — then you pretend there is something wrong with complying with the law!!!

    Please direct your next programmng to the MASSIVE TAXPAYER FRAUD BEING PERPETUATED BY LAWBREAKERS LIKE THESE STUDENTS WHO ARE APPLYING FOR AID THAT THEY ARE NOT LEGALLY ENTITLED TO RECEIVE? Please also direct your reporting to a more honest and noble effort in the future— like stopping illegal immigration and the devastating financial consequences of it!

    • Alegalservices

      Angelica, I don’t think you understand English very well, maybe you should apply for this scholarship, sounds like you need it.

      • Anonymous

        No, I don’t need it you ignoramous! But, I also believe in the rule of law and and recognize the catastrophic consequences of the open borders free-for-all policies for which you advocate. You obviously have no opposition to massive fraud and lawbreaking– in fact you are openly advocating for them.

        So, it’s very evident who needs an education here. And, I wholeheartedly support your right to receive the Bright Futures Scholarship to obtain your much-needed education so long as you are not committing fraud and deceit to obtain it and so long as your presence within the United States is lawful. Bon chance!

        • Guest

          I’m curious as to what these catastrophic consequences are…

          • Anonymous

            The question is really confounding— illegal immigrants consume FAR MORE in taxpayer funded social services than they pay in taxes. The costs are, in fact, unsustainable. Just a few examples:

            1. The Miami Herald Editorial Board reported on February 14, 2010, and I quote:

            Caring for undocumented residents cost Jackson $150 million last year, about as much as it received from the voter approved half-penny sales tax.

            (This means that virtually the ENTIRETY of the additional tax paid by South Floridians goes to pay for the healthcare of those who aren’t even supposed to be in in the United States. Meanwhile Jackson is on the verge of collapse. This means that American citizens and LEGAL immgrants are in jeopardy of losing their fail-safe healthare safety-net!!)

            2. Also, as posted on the LA County Mayor’s website:

            January 19, 2011 — Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich released figures from the Department of Public Social Services showing that in November 2010, $53 million in welfare benefits ($22 million CalWORKs + $31 million in Food Stamps) were issued to parents who reside in the United States illegally and collect benefits for their native-born children in Los Angeles County — representing an increase of nearly 3 million from November 2009. This amounts to approximately 22% of all CalWORKs and Food Stamp issuances in the County.

            In 2009, CalWORKs and Food Stamp issuances to illegals totaled nearly $570 million. Based on the monthly figures in 2010, the total cost for the year will exceed $600 million.

            “When you add this to $550 million for public safety and nearly $500 million for healthcare, the total cost for illegal immigrants to County taxpayers exceeds $1.6 billion dollars a year – not including the hundreds of millions of dollars for education,” said Antonovich.

            3. On April 3, 2011, the Seattle Times reported as follows:

            As the state Legislature looks for ways to close a $5 billion budget shortfall, lawmakers are eyeing millions in cuts that could reduce or eliminate services used by illegal immigrants. Washington is projected to spend more than $300 million over the next two years on services illegal immigrants can tap, primarily welfare and health care for children, the seriously ill and pregnant women.
            Washington state estimates it will spend more than $300 million over the next two years on services illegal immigrants can tap, not counting K-12 education. A breakdown:

            $125 million on health care for 7,400 pregnant women ineligible for Medicaid because of federal restrictions.

            $73 million on welfare for children. The federal government requires proof that the children are here legally, but not their parents. This program also can’t be changed.

            $59 million for medical and dental coverage for 25,000 children from low-income families ineligible for Medicaid because they can’t prove they are here legally.

            $24 million for kidney dialysis and cancer treatment for 1,300 low-income people ineligible for Medicaid because they can’t prove they are here legally.

            $15 million for in-state tuition subsidies for students who have lived in Washington for at least three years. The state does not check legal status.

            $5.6 million in nursing-home care for low-income undocumented residents.

  • Ladyluc

    RECALL Eleanor Sobel! She does not represent US citizens! She cares more about the illegals than she does Americans!

    • Afteralljess

      You people are idiots.

      • Dave in Tampa

        The only person acting ;like an idiot is you “Afteralljess”. You use an ad hominem attack rather than refuting Ladyluc’s statement. The fact is that Sobel states she voted against the bill because she was concerned about possible illegal alien parents. If you can disprove Sobel’s own statement, please feel free to do so.

        While you are at it, please explain why illegal aliens should receive a scholarship to which they are not legally entitled and through which, by applying for and accepting, are lying to and defrauding the government.

      • alegal

        Ignorant, prejudice people like you are the IDIOTS!!!!!

        • Anonymous

          There is no prejudice to requiring that lawfully present residents receive the scholarship. America has THE MOST generous immigration policies in the world— permitting over 700,000 LEGAL immigrants here every year. Fair-minded, intelligent people support that. What is intolerable is the open-borders, fraud, and other lawbreaking for which you advocate as well as your mindless and dishonest claims of “prejudice”.

  • Marr4

    Ignorance does not help this situation! We have studnets that want to attend a university, they have successfully finished high school! Many of them are bilingual! Why would they be denied a college education!??? At least they want to go to college to make their lives better in turn this will help our country.

    • Tabitha1

      This is not ignorance, it’s the law. If illegal students want to attend a university, they need to pay the tuition or go back to their country of origin. It’s time to stop the free handouts to illegals!! Bright Futures Tuition dollars are to educate American citizens. If you’re here illegally, no benefits period!

  • Clarissalara

    FYI there are way more than a mere of “700,000″ immigrants right here, right now in America. A mere 700,000 would be an understatement. Also, immigrants are no part of a charity ward. Just like any other person, they pay taxes and get just as much deductions, from their already low income, as you do-maybe even more. Whatever happened to “America, the land of the free?” ironically, the state of racial inequality, the cycle of injustice is repeating itself, again. When will we ever learn?

  • guest

    miss mary beth rodd, for your information that is not true. “US citizens” as you say dont even take advantage of what they have in front of their faces illegal students do not take dollars away from anyone. they are just trying to be as successful as anyone else. and miss anevile illegal people cant even get welfare ok so dont talk. i am illegal and i too want to attend college and nothing is going to stop me. i am a 4.0 student since 9th grade and most of my friends who i might add are US Citizens will not be going to college because THEY DONT CARE! they dont know what its like to be on the other side and neither do you. you people have no reason to judge us. and i plan on becoming a US Citizen by taking a test of the entire history thats why i am going to college. its not the end of the road for me it just began. 

    • Guest

      I wanted to say that I am a citizen, my parents and children are citizens.  I however have been struggling to pay for both their education and my own.  I see students everyday in college that do not care but are taking the money and blowing it on “I phones” etc.  I myself can’t afford a cell phone but have one for my son whose has a medical condition.  While I do feel that the laws should be far to everyone.  Each year I am required to fill out the FASFA and for many years have not been able to recieve any or enough to attend.  I would like to be able to one day not struggle as much.  Immagrants are contantly telling their struggles but forget that their alot of Citizens that struggle each day as well and without breaking any laws.  Also, just wanted to point out that when I go to an establishement to try to get aid.  I see the illegal immagrants and others being told about special programs that are not even offered to me and my struggling family but of course I have spent my life paying for I’m sure.   The key to stopping all this maddness is to simply verify the immagration status.  If you are here illegally, you should be sent back or at least sent out of the US.  If illegal immagrants can’t come to the US then they will not have babies in the US.  Which will free up some of the money to either US citizens or other programs.  The government and our laws should be protected and be obeyed by all that reside in this great country. 

      I agree with AngelicaUNC1, this has such a catostrophic consequence.  I just hope that many more US citizens will realize before it is to late.  Because the US just can’t afford to have a bleeding heart any longer.

      • Julianam4991

        Like i stated above think about this is it fair to send us the ones who also like you and your family can not control where we are born are going to be sent back or kicked out of this country because we are illegal? I was not born here I soon will be 18 I have been here since I was four years old,and I have always strived in school and in sports so that I could have a good future. I want to go to college and major in history. So now I ask you is it “fair” to send people who have no knowledge of their country of origin to be sent back? For the fact that life is hard for you? NEWSFLASH we all have problems. How do you think i feel all my friends drive, I cant, because i refuse to break the law and drive illegaly. My friends can get jobs, I cant, I refuse to yet again break the law and get a fake social. My parents assume house cleaning jobs to provide for me and my younger brother whom I pray to god never has to feel so hurt as I feel to consider oneself an american and have majority of the people in thinks country hate and want them to be kicked out because we did not have a choice on where we were raised. Why dont you stop and wonder who started this country, Immigrants they came here took the bad jobs made this nation stronger and now that we face a problem who is the first to go? Immigrants. I am not saying all immigrants are hard working and strive for an honest living, but then again not all americans have an honest living do they?

    • Guest

      If you will not stop at anything to go to college, then pay for it yourself.  It may take a while but you can do it just as I have.  My family are all US citizens and we get no help from the government at all and never have.  If you want to truley want to be citizens they should be here legally and should respect the laws of our great nation or else leave.  I wish you all the best, but think that you should know that it is not only the illegals that have struggles.  Many others do and they do not break the law or lie to get what they want.  We all fill out the FASFA, and all should recieve it based on the information required, no loopholes.  I wish you all the best and hope that when you have paid your way through school like many other americans do, you will only then understand the true value of education and hard work.

      • Julianam4991

        Do you understand that its not our choice? Our parents brought most of us here. Yes we all have struggles I am an illegal child but i have ALWAYS respected the law never drank underage, partied like most of my classmates. and you are saying I should leave? How dare you?  And as to the college do you understand that we can not get jobs,health care, you are not allowed to have your diploma until you are a citizen? And if you work so hard then refer to the history of this country and look back at what making assumptions and stereotyping others has done not only to our country, but the world itself.

  • julia

    Honestly I agree with most the people who have commented. Legal kids don’t intend on going to college because they do not car, but at the same time some illegal kids also do not want to go to college. I feel as if history is repeating itself all over again. American legislators are all stereotyping. Grouping as if every American deserves the money for school. What about us illegal kids who have been educated in America since we were kids? Is America going to close its doors on us? The ones who are here and consider ourselves true Americans the ones who like all in our nation felt the pain of 9-11,the ones who were here as the first African American  president assumed office. Has anyone stopped to contemplate on if an illegal child beats out an “American” child at a college scholarship i’m sorry, but frankly that is not our fault. This country is capitalist right? So why can it not be like that in education the people who work the hardest why can’t they get their reward for being good students.

  • Eduardorhb12

    People argue about the same thing time and time again. I would like to see U.S. citizens switch places with immigrants and feel the suffer that they feel each day. People try to enhance their future by going to college which is not a crime. These laws themselves are the criminals. They take money from those who deserve it. Immigrants too pay taxes and that money can benefit their children instead of just holding it off for those who dont appreciate what they have. American is a bunch of lies in itself so dont blame those who cannot achieve what others can as easily. We’re suppose to be a united nation but what i see constantly is people downing other people for reasons that they have no clue about. These kids deserve a better, brighter future. If you were in their position wouldnt u want the same for your child?  

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