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A chance at college for dreamers

Published: Saturday, Feb. 22 2014 8:00 a.m. MST

Marco Saavedra in his home neighborhood of Washington Heights, N.Y.

Lane Anderson, Slade Combs

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When Marco Saavedra was in the sixth grade, he got a letter that changed his life — it was from a program called Prep for Prep that identifies promising inner-city students and readies them for exclusive private high schools.

After taking a standardized test, IQ exam, and two summers' worth of intensive preparatory courses, he was admitted on scholarship to Deerfield Academy, one of the country's most exclusive college-preparatory boarding schools, located in western Massachusetts.

Saavedra and his parents, who had moved from Oaxaca, Mexico, to New York City years before, were thrilled. His father had taken a job as a gas station attendant, his mother worked in the garment district. They lived in a small apartment in Washington Heights, an immigrant neighborhood where mangos are sold on the street, and the sidewalks are loud with Dominican music.

Deerfield, on the other hand, was populated with well-groomed lawns, leafy trees and "preppy" students from tony New England zip codes. Saavedra roamed campus with the other students, reading Thoreau, Hawthorn and Melville. It was a bit surreal — "a far cry from inner-city high school," he says.

Like other elite prep schools, students at Deerfield often gain early entry to the country's top colleges. By his junior year, many of Saavedra's classmates were posting their college acceptance letters on their dormitory doors, as is the custom. For most of them it was not a matter of if they would get into college, but where — many students got into their first-choice school on early acceptance.

Unlike his classmates, Saavedra had a growing uncertainty about whether he would go to college at all. He didn't have the grades to go to a top-tier Ivy League school, but there were plenty of good small liberal arts colleges that would admit him. The biggest problem, though, wasn't Saavedra's grades. The problem was that he was an undocumented student.

Few options

Every year, an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school. Some came to the U.S. when they were so young, they don't remember life anywhere else.

And yet, because they aren't U.S. citizens, these students can't apply for many forms of financial aid — from Pell grants to student loans backed by the federal government. Aside from coveted scholarships, this leaves few options for most dreamers to pay for school.

This presents a unique challenge to a population where poverty rates are well above the national average. There are about 2.5 million undocumented youths currently living in the U.S., and only 5-10 percent of them are able to go to college, according to unitedwedream.org.

Some top colleges — like Princeton — have a few scholarships set aside for undocumented students, but many schools reject applications based on the fact that undocumented immigrants aren't able to apply for federal financial aid. Marco and his counselor scrambled to find a school for him. "When I applied it was a crazy process," says Marco. "Half my heart was saying you won’t get in, don’t do this, but the other half was wanting to apply everywhere."

Some states, such as Texas, California, Utah and New Jersey, now provide financial aid and in-state tuition for undocumented students, also known as dreamers, but most don't, and many states charge undocumented students out-of-state tuition or treat them as international students.

Undocumented student Emilio Vicente made headlines this week in his bid for student body president at UNC, where he was admitted with a 4.3 GPA. He was granted a scholarship, otherwise he would have been charged out-of-state tuition, even though his family lives less than an hour away from the UNC campus. Nonresident tuition rates double or triple the price tag of school. At UNC, for example, tuition for state residents is $4,170, but spikes to $15,061 for nonresidents.

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