Undocumented students in Connecticut might be one step closer to affordable college tuition.
State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, who represents New Haven, has proposed a bill that allows Dreamers — undocumented minors who graduate from U.S. high schools and gain permanent residency in the country as a result of the federal and state laws associated with the DREAM Act — to have greater access to financial aid at public higher education institutions across the state.
Looney held a press conference on Thursday morning in support of the Dreamers and then testified at a hearing in front of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee that afternoon.
“Many of these students have lived in our state for virtually their entire lives. They are our neighbors and our children’s friends and classmates,” Looney said at the conference. “They are also a significant part of Connecticut’s future. Students who attain degrees from public universities and colleges in Connecticut are more likely to build careers here in Connecticut and become part of the permanent fabric of the state.”
The bill’s introduction comes after the legislature passed a bill in 2011 allowing Dreamers to pay in-state tuition rates at Connecticut colleges, Looney said.
During the hearing for Looney’s bill, Executive Director of the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission Werner Oyanadel said the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis has found that this particular bill would not cost the state more money, as the current funds would merely be spread across a larger population of students.
State Sen. and Republican Ranking Member of the Education Committee Kevin Witkos, who had met with Oyanadel over the new legislation, suggested during the hearing that Republicans would not make the bill a bipartisan issue.
“I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised that you’re going to find a friendly reception on this side of the aisle,” he said to Oyanadel.
Jackson Beck ’17, the legislative coordinator of the Yale Democrats, testified with four other Yale students in support of the bill at the hearing in Hartford. Beck said he found the testimonies of other students, many of whom encountered difficulties because of their undocumented status, emotionally moving. He added that he had also delivered 650 letters of support from Yale students, through a tabling effort run by the Dems, to the committee earlier that month.
Oyanadel also said he would like to expand funding access to a broader student population — a desire others who attended the hearing also expressed.
Democratic Rep. Edwin Vargas of Hartford, a cosponsor of Looney’s bill, echoed this sentiment, noting that he had originally introduced a similar, but more expansive, bill that did not limit state aid to only Dreamers. This bill was not raised by the legislature.
Expanding access is also a focus for Lucas Codognolla, lead director of Connecticut Students for a Dream — a grassroots organization composed of students and activists that works to provide undocumented students with access to higher education. However, he said he was also pleased with the support Looney had provided by testifying and challenging the committee to make the bill a priority.
The bill has been proposed in a legislative session during which Gov. Dannel Malloy has introduced two similar initiatives. The first, which Oyanadel said would not negatively impact the state’s finances, aims to lower the requisite number of years a student must attend a state high school to receive in-state tuition rates from four to two. The second, Codognolla said, also aims to increase student access to state funding for college tuition by providing scholarships for Dreamers by setting up funds of $150,000 and $300,000 for the next two fiscal years, respectively.
These funds would be distributed by New Haven Promise, a nonprofit organization that already hands out scholarships to local students. Codognolla said he believes New Haven Promise’s involvement stems from the state’s desire to avoid costs associated with setting up a method of distributing the funds.
The bills arrive in a legislative session where lawmakers are also wrestling with severe budget issues, from a projected $150.6 million deficit in the current fiscal year to a recent miscalculation leading to lowered spending caps. Many state groups, including higher education institutions such as the University of Connecticut and the Connecticut State Universities system, have voiced concerns with the spending cuts in the budget Malloy proposed last week.
“The governor is proud to be a national leader on this issue [of tuition funding for undocumented students], and that’s why he’s proposed a certain amount of scholarship dollars for these students,” Malloy spokesman Devon Puglia told the News. “If the legislature ultimately passes a bill beyond what he has budgeted for, we will carefully review it.”
At least five states — California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas and Washington — currently offer undocumented students state financial aid.