Undocumented students at ‘U’ raise concerns about tuition policy appeals process

Sunday, April 21, 2019 - 6:20pm

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Design by Jack Silberman

When Taubman junior Juan Muñoz graduated high school in 2013, he was unsure how to navigate higher education financially. Although he resides in Michigan, his status as an undocumented individual has made — and continues to make — his ascent into public higher education rocky.

The University of Michigan has a route for students who do not meet the traditional residency guidelines to receive in-state tuition, according to University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen. In an email to The Daily, she wrote that the policy, which is called the Attendance and Veterans pathways, was added in 2014. It allows students who attend middle school in Michigan for two years, a Michigan accredited high school for three years and enroll in the University within 28 months of high school graduation to receive in-state tuition.

This pathway was the result of advocacy by the Coalition for Tuition Equality, which fought for the right of resident undocumented students to receive in-state tuition since October 2011. The Board of Regents approved the new guidelines in July 2013, and they were put into place in 2014.

Broekhuizen wrote the 28 month transition time may have been the standard amount of time students waited to apply to the University in 2014.

“The Attendance and Veterans pathways were added in 2014 to bring greater clarity to the residency guidelines and to provide access for veterans and students (including DACA/Undocumented students) who fall outside of the laws and policies surrounding the Residency guidelines but who otherwise meet many tenants of residency,” Broekhuizen wrote. “The policy is not a 28 month policy but rather an access policy, with clear requirements, for those not eligible for residency under the 'residency' pathway on the basis of their school attendance.”

This 28 months did not apply to Muñoz, however. Because he had to work throughout community college, it ultimately took him 60 months to transfer to the University, rendering him ineligible for in-state tuition.

He came close to transferring earlier in his academic career, but with President Donald Trump’s promise at the time to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals system — an immigration program Trump has since ended that offers people who came to the U.S. as children a path to citizenship  — Muñoz decided it was more reasonable to finish an Associate's Degree in case he was deported.

Muñoz said the 28-month policy specifically alienates students like himself who may need more than two years to transfer to the University.

“This policy works for traditional students, but it doesn’t for non-traditional, especially if you’re nontraditional and undocumented,” Muñoz said. “It took 60 months for me to get here, but that was because I had to pay for community college.”

Broekhuizen noted the opportunity for those who do not meet the requirements, including the 28 month timeline, to file an appeal.

However, members of the Student Community of Progressive Empowerment, a group created to support and serve undocumented students on campus, have said the appeals process is not transparent, sometimes leaving students unsure of their financial aid status even after they begin classes. Muñoz’s appeal was denied after he finished his first semester of summer classes and already owed money — which he then found out was international tuition because of his undocumented status — for the semester.

Now that his appeal of the policy was rejected, Muñoz’s future at the University remains unclear and hinges largely on the decisions of administrators in different sectors, from the Registrar to the Board of Regents to Taubman College.

LSA senior Daniel López also went through the appeals process, but unlike Muñoz, his case was accepted. As a first-generation student, López said he began at community college because the schools he was applying to as a high school senior were asking for out-of-state or international tuition prices, which were not feasible for him.

“You already live in so many uncertainties as an undocumented student, but having to think about school on top of it and this policy — not knowing if you’re going to be classified as in-state or out-of-state — that adds on to it,” López said. “They’re asking by May 1 you have to make your decision: are you coming or are you not coming? How can I make a decision if I don’t even know if I’m going to be granted financial aid?”

Unlike other states, Michigan does not have a statewide policy regarding undocumented students and students under DACA that allows them to receive in-state tuition. In the absence of state policy, the handling of tuition is left to each university's discretion.

The University Leaders for Educational Access and Diversity Network, an offshoot of the University’s National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good, tracks Michigan colleges and their accessibility for undocumented students in four areas: admissions, tuition, financial aid and general support. The University received top marks in all four categories, aligning most closely with Grand Valley State University.

Public Policy senior Yvonne Navarrete, also an undocumented student, came to the University directly after high school, yet was sitting at her graduation uncertain of her financial aid package even though she automatically qualified for in-state tuition under the policy. Navarrete said she knew she would receive in-state tuition through the pathway, but she had to wait on approval of her grants.

Navarrete, like López and Muñoz, is a member of SCOPE. She said the organization has worked to spread awareness of issues facing the undocumented community in addition to being a haven for undocumented students.

“As we were forming SCOPE, Trump was getting elected and a lot of things were going on, so we realized there were issues we needed to address and that there were specific things the University itself could be doing,” Navarrete said. “Even though the the original purpose of SCOPE was to build community, it definitely became the platform with which we organize ourselves to advocate for undocumented students on campus.”

About 5-10 percent of undocumented students enter higher education programs and fewer graduate, according a 2015 statistic from the U.S. Department of Education. Additionally, the College Board has found from case studies of California, Texas and Massachusetts that undocumented students make up a disproportionately small fraction of the total enrollment at public institutions even with in-state tuition.

Navarrete said SCOPE began meeting with administrators within its first month of creation in October 2016. Since then, she said they have found allies in administrators, faculty members and organizations across the University.

However, she said she feels the University and its administrators have been hesitant to propose changes to the pathway and, more specifically, its appeals process. In these meetings, Navarrete said administrators frequently raise the opinions of conservative University stakeholders and how these people will react to policy changes.

“Individuals have emphasized and validated our concerns across the board,” Navarrete said. “Whoever we raise our issues to do realize they are issues and they need to be addressed. I think where the gap exists is how much certain individuals have then translated that into action, especially the ones we perceive as having more power or influence.”

Muñoz said much of his advocacy has involved sharing his experience with others on campus — including at a recent Board of Regents meeting — to build understanding of the policy and how it impacts students.

“Raising awareness of how this policy is affecting students and blocking them from getting an education is what I’ve been doing, whether it’s talking to students, talking to faculty, doing interviews, going to Regents meetings,” Muñoz said. “I feel like the more awareness that we raise, the more support we can get if people realize this is affectings students.”

SCOPE’s battle with the 28 month policy has been ongoing. In 2017, SCOPE held a rally in 2017 in the Diag with four main demands, one of which focused on extending the 28 month timeline of the tuition pathway.

Despite this, Navarrete pointed out some strides made in the undocumented student community. For example, a point of contact for undocumented students and a website compiling University resources were created to address issues of decentralization and difficulty finding resources. Navarrete credited Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers for this and noted the changes as an example of intentional and timely responses from University administrators.

Additionally, a recent SCOPE campaign was created to increase the visibility of undocumented students and give them ease of mind in social spaces. Navarrete said the campaign signals a shift in the University climate from when she first came to campus.

“Now, you’ll walk into multiple offices on campus and you see a poster that says ‘Undocumented Students Welcome,’ which is something that when I first came to campus I wouldn’t have even imagined,” Navarrete said. “I can feel at least slightly more comfortable sharing my status within someone in that office if I need to or feel like I have to because of that statement.”

On the administrative level, Broekhuizen said the University has actively engaged with the DACA/undocumented community through the Offices of Enrollment Management, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Student Life and Government Relations, among others, to identify resources and help DACA/undocumented students navigate issues facing them. She said much of the information and resources compiled through these conversations can be found online.

There is also an underlying support network within the undocumented student community. López, for example, compiled a document outlining his experience navigating the tuition policy and appeals process. However, he said he recognizes he can only do so much. Because the appeals process is completed on an individual basis, López said the steps he took may not work or make sense for everyone. It did not for Muñoz, López noted.

“I reach out to other community college students I know of that are looking at Michigan or are already in the process of coming to Michigan and one of the first questions I ask them is ‘How many months?’” López said. “I went through this struggle. I made a document where I wrote out the steps I took, though that’s not going to be the case for everyone else.”

Like Navarrete, López has seen solidarity among faculty and administrators but also notes a hesitance to make sweeping policy change. López, along with other SCOPE members, said he would like to see the appeals process be easier to navigate and more transparent.

Although SCOPE is advertised on the University’s website for undocumented students and prospective students, Muñoz said SCOPE had to push for a place at the University, the same way its members are now pushing for a change to the tuition policy.

“SCOPE had to fight to create its space at the University,” Muñoz said. “It wasn’t like the University acknowledged us without us making our space and being visible. It’s the same thing with the policy now. Because we’re making ourselves visible and this policy visible, they’re acknowledging it.”

Without in-state tuition, Muñoz is currently taking courses at the discretion of the Taubman School of Architecture while logistics of tuition payment still remain hazy. Navarrete expressed frustration with decentralization, noting how Muñoz can be supported by his school yet held back by a separate unit of the University. She said this emphasizes the need for support from key administrators as well as the Board of Regents.

Ultimately, Muñoz has found handling the appeals process while still being enrolled full time to be mentally and physically draining. He said he is hoping the credits he is taking now can be added later once his situation is resolved. Although his appeal was denied, Muñoz said the Registrar has confirmed it is working with Taubman deans, faculty and a DEI representative to figure out a plan of action.

Muñoz said he hopes the University administration and Board of Regents listen to what members of SCOPE have been saying a revise the policy and create widespread change. For the time being, Muñoz’s future at the University remains somewhat in limbo — out of his hands and at the discretion of his college.

“It’s mind blowing that we have faculty all over the University that supports us, understands us and wants us to succeed here, and then there’s policies in the University that are stopping us from doing that,” Muñoz said. “The Regents and administrators need to realize this policy is playing with our futures. It’s preventing us from having this future we’ve been working hard for.”