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WA "Dream Act": Financial Aid Within Reach for Immigrants

February 26, 2014

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Gov. Jay Inslee today is to sign Washington's version of the "Dream Act." It's another step in years of effort by children of immigrant families to gain access to higher education - and it could make the difference for some as to whether college is even an option.

Undocumented young people who are Washington residents already can receive in-state tuition rates, but until now they couldn't qualify for any state financial aid. Bernal Baca, a retired college counselor in Yakima, said that has automatically limited these students' choices - no matter how good their grade-point averages.

"If you know immigrant students like I knew immigrant students, they came to school working two jobs and paying their own freight for tuition, just to go to college at the community college, because it was cheaper," he said. "Their options have just opened up because of this."

Baca, now a lobbyist for the education union AFT Washington, said immigrant students still don't qualify for the federally funded Pell Grants for higher education, which makes state-level opportunities even more important.

However, even with the new "Dream Act," financial aid may still be a dream because of an overall lack of state funding. Baca said Washington easily could award State Need Grants to 32,000 more students, but the Legislature hasn't allocated enough money to the program for years. He said he thinks the new Dream Act could jump-start that discussion.

"This is certainly a big step in that direction," he said. "We just need more money now, and I'm hoping that our community will step up to the plate and put pressure to get more money for the students of the state of Washington."

Also this week, a report from the state Education Research and Data Center said people who earn a bachelor's degree earn 20 percent more money in their first two years after graduation than those who don't go on to college. The Dream Act passed with bipartisan majorities in both House and Senate.

The signing ceremony for the bill, Senate Bill 6523, will be held at 2 p.m. today in the State Reception Room, Legislative Building, Olympia.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA