Activists urge NU to aid undocumented students

Sheila Burt

When prospective undocumented or international students apply to Northwestern, they do so knowing they can forget about financial aid, but members of a local Chicago activist group want NU to open its funds to undocumented students.

NU does not offer financial aid to these students because it cannot obtain the same financial data, such as tax forms, it receives from U.S. citizens, said Rebecca Dixon, associate provost for university enrollment. Although undocumented students — seriously called illegal aliens — generally have lived in the United States for several years, they are ineligible for federal and state aid without citizen status.

Changing NU’s financial aid policy so undocumented and international students can receive assistance would cost the university more than $1 million, Dixon said.

“We’d be guessing at financial capacity,” she said.

The debate over the financial aid policy peaked this summer when an admitted undocumented student could not attend NU because of finances. In response members of Chicago-based Organization of the NorthEast lobbied outside the Rebecca Crown Center in late July.

Early in the application process, Dixon said, the admission office tells undocumented and international students that the university will review their applications but cannot offer financial aid.

Although NU receives some funds from the federal government, almost 80 percent of grants come from the university, Dixon said. Giving money to undocumented students would force NU to spread its funds to more students, making citizens borrow more money through loans and work-study, Dixon said.

In a June 27 letter to Organization of the NorthEast, University President Henry Bienen reaffirmed the school’s policy. A change in policy would deprive “others of resources,” he wrote.

But Joyce Ramirez-Knight, vice president of ONE and co-chairwoman of their immigration strategy task force, said the group might solicit private donors to help undocumented students.

Ramirez-Knight estimates nearly 3,000 undocumented students who are academically eligible but cannot afford higher education reside in the Chicago area. By giving these students financial aid, Ramirez-Knight said, NU would be promoting social justice and fulfilling its ideal for a school of diversity.

Several schools — including Harvard, Brown, Princeton and Stanford universities — give financial aid to international students. Although officials at these colleges said they have not dealt with undocumented students, they would most likely treat them as international students.

But Sarah Donahue, director of financial aid at Harvard, said many schools cannot cover the expenses of domestic and international students.

“It’s a tough issue for schools who are really trying to distribute the money they have in the best manner,” Donahue said. “Money just doesn’t appear.”

Dixon believes the best way to change is through Congress, where progress has been made for undocumented students. Illinois recently passed a bill making long-time Illinois residents who are undocumented eligible for in-state tuition at state-funded institutions.

But whether through Congress or individual university policies, Ramirez-Knight said the issue of granting funds should not be delayed.

“I think it’s about time,” she said. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”