Say Yes says maybe to undocumented Guilford students

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Undocumented students their exclusion from Say Yes' scholarship program in September.

Local leaders of Say Yes to Education-Guilford, an endowment that provides “last dollar” financial aid to allow graduates from Guilford County Schools to go to college, say they are sympathetic to the plight of undocumented students, but there are no immediate plans to include them in the scholarship program.

Luis Flores, a 19-year-old graduate of the Middle College at UNCG who came with his family to the United States from Mexico at the age of 2, had already registered for classes at East Carolina University, where he had his heart set on pursuing a pre-med degree.

He’d already met his roommate, bought books and supplies, and lined up an internship at a Montessori school. But before the start of the fall semester, he had to tell his roommate and new friends that he wouldn’t be coming after all. The university had made a mistake in determining that Flores was eligible for in-state tuition. Say Yes to Education-Guilford, a local nonprofit that provides last-dollar support to help Guilford County students attend college, had pledged to cover his tuition, but now that Flores was no longer eligible for the in-state discount, the scholarship was no longer available.

Flores and his family have been approved for a humanitarian visa as a result of his father being victimized in a crime in California — Flores declined in an interview to provide details about the incident out of respect for his father’s wishes — but he doesn’t yet have the actual visa. Flores said East Carolina has agreed to hold a spot for him for the spring 2017 semester if and when he obtains the visa. That could happen in the next several days, or it could take months or years, he said. In the meantime, his life is more or less on hold. His high school friends have all left for college elsewhere in the state while Flores is getting an English requirement out of the way by taking a class at GTCC while working part time.

“At first it was kind of like, ‘Why did this happen to me?’” Flores recalled. “I’ve been dedicating my entire life to school. I did over 250 hours of service-learning through four years of high school. I was working and doing internships. It’s kind of disappointing to see that you don’t get that support from your community that you’ve given so much to.”

Say Yes-Guilford, which issued its first round of scholarships this fall, has been under pressure to extend financial support to undocumented students since late spring. Although Flores is not technically undocumented — prior to his family’s approval for the humanitarian visa, he was covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, giving him a Social Security number and work permit — he falls in the same legal limbo as others who are not receiving financial support from the local program.

“We received a letter from Latino advocates in the late spring or early summer saying they wanted to have a discussion about seeing what we could do for undocumented students,” said Kevin Gray, who holds a position on the scholarship board as the executive director of the Weaver Foundation. “In North Carolina, undocumented students are not eligible for in-state tuition. That’s the big rub.”

The question of whether the scholarship fund should benefit undocumented students did not come up as a matter of discussion when many local foundations, including the Weaver Foundation, the High Point Community Foundation and the Cone Health Foundation made significant contributions to establish an endowment. Many of those funders, who now have a voice in Say Yes’ governance through positions on the scholarship board and operating committee, have said they’re sympathetic to the undocumented students’ plight.

“No, we haven’t had an in-depth discussion,” said Gray, whose foundation contributed $1.25 million to the endowment with an agreement that some of the money could cover operational expenses. “I don’t think we would. We leave that up to the grantee.”

Gray said he and other leaders are receptive to the advocates’ plea for inclusion.

“I think we’re going to be able to work something out, but we have to be patient,” Gray said. “There are a variety of students that are in need, and Say Yes is going to try to serve them all.”

Steve Sumerford chairs the board at the Cone Health Foundation, which contributed $1 million to the endowment.

“Our board is very enthusiastic about Say Yes, and also concerned that it does not now include undocumented students,” he said.

Meredith Archie, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, noted that the energy giant’s $1 million grant to Say Yes-Guilford is specifically earmarked for “wrap-around services” like tutoring, mentoring, health, social services and after-school activities that are available to all students in the Guilford County Schools system, and declined to directly address a question about the utility’s position on whether the scholarship funds should be available to undocumented students.

Donnie Turlington, a spokesperson for Say Yes-Guilford, said the nonprofit wants to be inclusive of the immigrant community and get a better understanding of barriers to educational access. To that end, two advocates for the community have been invited into the nonprofit’s leadership structure. Addy Jeffrey, a longtime advocate for the Latinx community, has been appointed to the community leadership council, while Katya Castellon, an associate director of undergraduate admissions at UNCG, is now a member of the operating committee.

Despite encouraging statements from some representatives of Say Yes’ leadership, Skip Moore, a key member of the scholarship board, said there are no immediate plans to accommodate undocumented students. Moore, who serves as a volunteer executive director to the scholarship board, said the matter is not on the agenda for the board’s next meetings in January or February.

“I don’t know why we want an economic underclass. That’s what we’re doing.” — Skip Moore, Say Yes scholarship board

At the current time I don’t see any action we can take,” he said. Moore added that he anticipates the board will focus on continued fundraising to build the endowment to meet its obligations to documented students, what he referred to as “the core program.” Say Yes-Guilford has raised $41 million towards a goal of $70 million set for the endowment.

“What would you suggest we do to get the money?” Moore asked. “It’s easy for them to say, ‘Go raise the money and include them.’ If someone steps forward and says, ‘I want to fund undocumented students,’ we would be happy to talk with them.”

There are no definitive statistics for the number of students graduating from Guilford County Schools who are excluded from Say Yes’ scholarship program because of undocumented status. Alexandra Sirota, project director for the NC Budget & Tax Policy Center at the NC Justice Center, told a group at a League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad luncheon in Greensboro earlier this month that the number likely ranges from 54 to 190 per year.

Considering that the endowment provides scholarship funding through an interest yield of roughly 4 percent per year and out-of-state tuition for schools in the University of North Carolina System averages at about $16,000, Moore estimated Say Yes would need an endowment of $400,000 to cover the cost of tuition for an undocumented student for one year.

Moore ruled out the possibility of Say Yes making a partial contribution to support undocumented students as a compromise to at least offset the cost of out-of-state tuition. Adding another barrier, undocumented students who lack Social Security numbers cannot fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which Say Yes uses to determine how much money students will need to cover the last dollar of tuition. Moore said Say Yes has not given any thought to developing an alternative tool such as reviewing W-2 forms that could be used to determine financial need for undocumented students.

During her presentation to the league, Sirota argued an economic case for the state General Assembly to pass legislation to provide tuition equity — a solution that many Say Yes leaders have fervently embraced. Sirota said that by 2020, 60 percent of North Carolina jobs would require some type of post-secondary education. To reach that goal, the state needs to educate 1 million people. While whites and African Americans are overrepresented in post-secondary education, Sirota said Latinxs and Asians are under-represented, adding that there is some overlap between those demographics and the immigrant population. Increasing affordability, including through tuition equity, could reduce barriers to secondary education.

While Duke Energy declined to comment for about the exclusion of undocumented students from the scholarship program, the utility has framed its support as a function of economic development.

“We recognize that a strong educational foundation for all students is essential for our state’s competitive edge,” said Shawn Heath, president of the Duke Energy Foundation in a statement that accompanied the utility’s $1 million contribution, “which is why we’re excited to make this important investment in Say Yes-Guilford.”

Moore said he’s met with an undocumented student who graduated from Southeast Guilford High School as head of his ROTC program and an honor student.

“I’ve met several students who your heart goes out to,” he said. “I don’t know that we can give them the answer they want.”

Moore added a sentiment that sounded like a call to action, although he made it clear that he did not have Say Yes in mind.

“I don’t know why we want an economic underclass,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

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