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.
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.
Last week, a former Washington Post owner, Donald E. Graham, teamed up with a Democratic fundraiser and former Republican Cabinet secretary to announce a $25 million fund for students who entered the United States illegally as children. "TheDreamFund.us" will provide 1,000 scholarships for undocumented students like Marco every year. It represents the most significant step made by private donors to help aspiring undocumented youths achieve college education — and marks impatience with the failure of government process to provide a future for children who were raised and educated in the U.S.
The announcement of the Dream Fund comes on the heels of immigration reform that stalled recently when talks between the White House and Republican leadership in Congress broke down. The proposed reforms would have allowed for "legal status," though not citizenship, for some 11 million undocumented immigrants under certain conditions, and opened a door to a path to citizenship for young people illegally brought to the U.S. as children, along the lines of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act.
The hotly contested DREAM Act would pave a pathway for undocumented immigrant children toward legal U.S. residency via higher education or military participation, and also allow them to apply for legal permanent resident status — essentially allowing millions of immigrant students to further their careers in college or the military. The DREAM Act has failed in the House five times since it was first introduced in 2001.
“Absent the passage of the DREAM Act or other breakthrough in immigration policy, thousands of eager young people will be unable to achieve their academic dreams. We are not waiting for Washington to solve these challenges," said Dream Fund co-founder Carlos Gutierrez.
Now 17 states allow dreamers to receive in-state tuition at public universities — but without loans, even in-state tuition can be out of reach. Private groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies have stepped in to fill that gap, offering scholarships that provide $25,000 each to 1,000 students to attend pre-approved schools in New York, Texas, Florida and Washington, D.C.
Graham said that he believes that the scholarship recipients are likely to succeed because dreamers are "extemely motivated," and indeed, a Johns Hopkins study showed that children born abroad who came to the United States before their teen years tend to outperform their peers in school in academic achievement and school engagement.
Path to success
In 1978, a teacher from the Bronx named Gary Simons founded Prep for Prep, the program that helped Marco Saavedra get into boarding school, and since then hundreds of the program's inner-city alumni have gone on to law, medical and business schools and get jobs at Goldman Sachs, NBC, JP Morgan and Time Warner.
Helping promising dreamers achieve the same opportunities is much tougher than helping students with citizenship, says Ed Boland, vice president of external affairs at Prep for Prep. He taught history at a New York public school and was a college counselor to a standout student. "He was the smartest kid in the school — everyone recognized his gifts early on," Boland said.
Because he was undocumented, the student was wait-listed at Brown and Harvard and never went to school. He's still battling for citizenship, and in the meantime he is helping his aunt sell meat patties in Florida.
Likewise, Beth Breger has helped thousands of low-income kids from all backgrounds finish their college applications through the nonprofit Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, or LEDA, where she is executive director. She also has found that under the current immigration laws, it is especially tricky to get dreamers into schools.
For example, one of her students was visiting colleges without proper I.D. and got stopped at the airport. "She could have been deported for visiting Harvard," she said. "If you can't cross state lines, or fill out financial aid forms, that's a big problem." Applicants for the Dream Fund must be Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) qualified, which gives them a two-year deportation reprieve, but fear of deportation is a concern for many students and their families, especially for those who aren't DACA qualified.
Marcos Saavedra did end up going to school — he was admitted to Kenyon College, a liberal arts school in Ohio. What is remarkable about Saavedra's case, however, is the amount of outside help that it took to get him there — from dedicated nonprofits and help from a college counselor at one of the most exclusive boarding schools in the country. It was disheartening, Saavedra says, and sometimes embarrassing, that he wasn't able to apply for college with the same hopes and expectations as his classmates. He feels "very lucky" that he was able to go to a four-year college.
Now Saavedra is freshly graduated from college and has returned to Washington Heights, his old neighborhood in New York City, where he is applying for nonprofit work and works part-time at his parents' Mexican restaurant in the Bronx. Now he finds himself contending with the same chapter of the American Dream that many of his classmates struggle with — finding a good job in the U.S. economy, even if you do have a college degree.