Thousands of students qualify and awarded aid but don't receive it

Less than a third of undocumented students who apply for state financial aid in California for college enroll and receive the help, according to a new report from the California Student Aid Commission.

Only 14% of the state’s more than 94,000 undocumented college students receive financial aid, the 2020-21 data shows.

“This is alarming because undocumented students pursuing a college education have lower incomes and would otherwise be eligible for financial aid,” according to the commission.

The Report

The report highlights that getting aid as an undocumented student has also become more difficult in California for various reasons. Undocumented students don’t qualify for federal financial aid, including student loans, so they don’t complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. But they can receive state aid through the California Dream Act application thanks to Assembly Bill 540, passed in 2001, which exempts any student with at least three years of attendance at a state high school from paying nonresident tuition.

However, 53% of undocumented students don’t apply for financial aid, according to 2021-22 data. And the number of students who did apply decreased by 26% from 2021 to 2023.

“This is not only a missed opportunity for the students and their families, but for our entire state,” said Marlene Garcia, executive director at the commission. “Financial aid not only helps make college degrees or certificates more attainable for individual students, but ultimately helps California address workforce gaps in health care, education and other important careers. Helping these students access financial aid and college allows them to access new opportunities so they and their families can thrive, while also expanding and diversifying California’s talent pipeline.”

Aid offered, not taken

The Student Aid Commission found that many applicants are offered financial aid but don’t collect it.

A spokesman for the commission said this could be due to paperwork errors, like students completing their Dream Act applications but failing to file with their colleges the AB 540 affidavit that explains they’ve been a California high school student for at least three years.

“A lot of times students think they’ve done everything, but they don’t hear about this affidavit until much later. That either delays them from getting their Cal Grant or maybe worse, it means it doesn’t get paid out,” according to the commission representative.

The commission’s report recommends several changes that campuses, the state, and federal lawmakers could implement to improve financial aid access for undocumented students. These include simplifying the state application, streamlining how campuses disburse funds, allowing undocumented students to qualify for other state aid, such as food benefits, and expanding federal financial aid eligibility.

AJ Lucas, who now works as a public policy manager with a nonprofit organization, found it difficult to navigate the college landscape without financial aid, despite being qualified to receive financial help as an undocumented student. Lucas transferred to UC Berkeley from Los Angeles City College and graduated with a degree in political science from the university in 2017. Last year, he became a U.S. citizen.

What is happening in LA

But as an LA area undocumented high school student, Lucas didn’t know he could receive financial aid before graduating in 2006. He applied and was accepted to multiple California universities but ultimately chose Santa Monica College because he couldn’t afford a four-year institution without help.

Although Lucas and his family arrived in the U.S. from Mexico when he was 8, he was classified as an international student at the community college. Lucas said he couldn’t afford the college tuition as an international student and took a job cleaning workshops in L.A.’s garment and fashion industry.

“I realized I couldn’t afford to continue school because I was paying half of my paycheck to go to school, and I couldn’t afford that for the long run,” Lucas said. “So basically, I dropped out and went straight into the workforce.”


Lucas said it wasn’t until the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, arrived in 2012 that he decided to pursue college again, this time at LA City College. But Lucas missed the deadline to submit his California Dream Act application and delayed college an additional year. Once he enrolled back in community college, Lucas focused on transferring to a university.

He was accepted to UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley. He settled on the Berkeley campus because it offered campus aid, like a loan for undocumented students.

Lucas said his experience taught him there needs to be more transparency and access to information that helps undocumented students. For example, even though AB 540 existed by the time he graduated from high school, no one seemed to know enough details to communicate the help he should have received.

Lucas said high school students are given information about college and financial aid as if they all have the same background and circumstances. “I received the very same template of information that my documented friends did.”

Without access to federal financial aid, undocumented students can see the gap in financial need range from as low as $14,000 to as much as $24,667, according to the California Student Aid Commission.

Ashley A. Smith covers postsecondary education and success and other education reforms.