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.”

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

    Jordan Green
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    More like pledged $1 million over a series of years, along with the other big pledges like Duke Energy’s, which over the long term makes the endowment unsustainable.
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    “[Kevin Gray, …holds a position on the scholarship board as the executive director of the Weaver Foundation] …whose foundation contributed $1.25 million to the endowment with an agreement that some of the money could cover operational expenses.

    …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…”

    Jordan Green
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    Jordan, do you realize the High Point Community Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro are making money from the endowment?
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    “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…”

    Jordan Green
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    It’s a grant over a series of years Jordan. The money hasn’t all been granted yet.

    It’s news Duke Energy’s money isn’t going to scholorships. So how much of the money pleged to Say Yes to Education-Guilford isn’t going to sholorships?
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    “Say Yes-Guilford has raised $41 million towards a goal of $70 million set for the endowment.”

    Jordan Green
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    No they have not. Skip Moore told the operating committee at the last meeting Say Yes Guilford actually has a little over $10 million in hand. The rest is pledged over 4 to 6 years.
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    “Considering that the endowment provides scholarship funding through an interest yield of roughly 4 percent per year…”

    Jordan Green
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    If Say Yes has about $10 million in hand, are they only paying out about $400,000 this year?

    • Aside from the money from the Duke Energy, which a spokesperson represented as being earmarked for support services, what does any of this have to do with the debate over whether Say Yes’ scholarship program should include undocumented students?

  • Because Say Yes doesn’t have the money to pay for a kid who would qualify in 4th grade now. They don’t have the money to help the undocumented. They don’t have the money to help charter school students. They don’t have the money to help those already promised. They don’t have the money they say they have Jordan, so what sense does the rest of the article about those who want what won’t be available make?

    They don’t have the $41 million Jordan. Call Skip up and ask him.

    Ask him how many white students got this semester compared to black students.

    Investigate…

    Ask why all the Say Yes national money is in South America and the Caribbean.

    Don’t you want to know how much Walker Sanders is taking off the top?

    You are trying to suck blood out of a rock, because the rock told you a fable and you believed it.

    • Jordan Green

      Skip told me Say Yes has raised $41 million out of $70 million needed to meet commitments to documented students. Based on your comments, I take that to mean money pledged as opposed to cash on hand. I take your point.

  • Andrew Young

    Of all the young people in the area who jump hurdles getting into college, undocumented kids face some of the highest ones. Plus, of course, they rightly fear detention and deportation. But let’s also add to the big picture the important details of rising college costs and flat, flat wages which have the effect of increasing the needs for everybody who is not in the upper middle or wealthy class. Those needs intensify false ideas about who’s deserving (“the board will focus on continued fundraising to build the endowment to meet its obligations to documented students”) because the decisions we make right now are having immediate effects on young people and their families. In turn, our decisions impact Greensboro’s social and economic climate, including our competitiveness. Trump aside, we in Guilford County should be looking hard at what we can do to ensure a better future for all. If Cooper is governor, we might have some protection against big government (ie NC Legislature) interference concerning whatever local laws we pass. Maybe.

    Guilford County needs all the talent it can get, period. It is painful to listen to old geezers who fear the future more than welcome it.

    Treat people like crap and don’t be surprised they find safer, more supportive communities in NC or other states. As an advocate for refugees and immigrants, I simply remind the well-intentioned that the scrumdiddlyumptious ethnic food they eat at Greensboro’s restaurants is brought to you by newcomer entrepreneurs. Many kept the City going during the Great Recession when a lot of storefronts and businesses were closing up and dying.

    And now, money, money, money. Do we have the money? Um, we passed four bond referendums. We’re building private parks in downtown Greensboro and many of us just can’t wait for the new Tanger center. Maybe instead of asking about the money, we in Greensboro should be asking (recalling that we have some of the densest concentrations of houses of worship I’ve ever seen, recalling that we have enough colleges and universities in town for us to be labeled a “college town”), Do we have the will?