Student turns to GoFundMe to pay off tuition after appeals process fails

Wednesday, December 4, 2019 - 6:37pm

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Courtesy of Juan Munoz Ponce

While Juan Muñoz should be in the final stretch of completing his Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture, the would-be Taubman senior is instead launching a GoFundMe to help pay the University of Michigan’s out-of-state tuition despite being a resident of Michigan since age four.

Muñoz, who is undocumented, is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program enacted under former President Barack Obama’s administration protecting undocumented child immigrants from deportation if they met certain requirements. President Donald Trump announced plans to rescind DACA in September 2017. 

Muñoz transferred to the University as a junior after completing his associate’s degree in Architecture Technology and Industrial Design Technology at Henry Ford College. As the first person in his family to attend college, Muñoz completed his associate’s degree in a little less than five years, paying for his tuition out of pocket while balancing a job on top of his courses. Muñoz has been a Michigan resident ever since his family left Mexico 20 years ago.  

“I got here when I was four years old, I turned five here,” Muñoz said. “I stayed in Detroit, Michigan. Literally from there forward I never left state. I’ve been going to Michigan schools since then and I’ve been going to school continuously. Even after graduating (high school), I never stopped, but I’m still being considered out-of-state.”

When Muñoz was accepted to the University, he was ecstatic, but it was not until he was already enrolled in Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning in fall 2018 he found out he did not qualify for in-state tuition. At the time Muñoz entered the University, residency eligibility required students to have attended an accredited Michigan high school for at least three years, attended a Michigan middle school for two years and to enroll at the University within 28 months of graduating high school. Muñoz satisfied the first two requirements, but because he enrolled 60 months after graduating high school, he was told he owed the University out-of-state tuition for the fall 2018 semester. 

“I was already in the fall program when it turned out that there was nothing that could be done,” Muñoz said. “Even with my appeals … I was already enrolled. That meant that I had to pay that tuition. We went to try and get it resolved with Regents. The policy was not resolved in the fall. For winter semester, my professors allowed me to attend the classes, do the work, get an informal grade, but I couldn’t register, so it’s not formally on my transcript.” 

In July, the Board of Regents approved a revision extending the enrollment time limit from 28 months to 40 months, but the policy revision still does not apply to Muñoz. After appealing his enrollment status, applying for scholarships and revising the policy, Muñoz said he exhausted all efforts and had to start the GoFundMe, his last resort and an option he wished he did not have to use.  

“I tried everything,” Muñoz said. “I tried changing the policy, I tried scholarships, I tried everything else that I could and that didn’t work. This is why I’m doing it. It’s not like, ‘Give me money.’ That's not what I'm trying to say. I just want to finish my education.” 

Muñoz said taking an extended amount of time to complete an associate’s degree and transfer to the University was a common situation for undocumented students who often come from lower income backgrounds. According to a University Record article on the July update, Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management, said there was sufficient evidence supporting a residency time limit extension.  

“It’s not surprising that these students often need to take longer to finance and achieve their eventual successful application and enrollment,” Ishop said. “We need to make sure that we maintain reasonable access for those who need to stop along the way, for instance to work, but who continue to achieve and are great candidates for U-M.”

University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email interview with The Daily that residency rules apply to all of those who qualify and noted the appeals process for students and families who wish to have their residency decision considered.

“Residency rules apply to all students who qualify,” Broekhuizen wrote. “Additionally, an appeals process exists for students/families who wish to have their residency decision reconsidered.”

Muñoz said he tried appealing the decision, but his case was rejected. 

The University is now requiring him to pay approximately $106,000: the remaining balance of his fall 2018 tuition, which is $26,700 per semester, and $80,000 for the three remaining semesters. 

LSA senior Barbara Diaz, co-founder and outreach chair of Student Community of Progressive Empowerment, a student organization supporting undocumented students on campus, said many states already have in-state tuition policies specific to undocumented students. These policies often require a certain number of years attending a middle school and high school in the state and ask the student to sign an affidavit agreeing to apply for citizenship as soon as they are able.  

“Michigan for some reason doesn’t have a policy like that,” Diaz said. “It’s really up to each university to come up with its own policy on how they want to move students in. U of M is in a very complicated situation because there is such a large difference between in-state and out-of-state students. In terms of coming up with a way to amend the policy, it was trying to find a way to increase access, but not too much where people who aren’t from the state are able to apply or get in-state tuition.” 

Diaz is also a DACA recipient and noted the importance of showing prospective students who are undocumented they can apply to and attend the University. She emphasized the significance of building community in a time where the continuation of DACA is uncertain at the federal level.  

“You always hear about students thinking that they can’t go to college because they’re undocumented,” Diaz said. “Something with SCOPE is how do we reach out more to people? How can we mentor other students? How can we form those connections? Sometimes it feels like our goal is just to survive … especially right now with DACA going back to the Supreme Court … We’re worried about what happens if we lose status in a couple months.” 

While acknowledging the potential benefits from Muñoz’s GoFundMe would outweigh the risks, Diaz noted the mental and emotional burden of being an undocumented student.

“Just by being undocumented, and you being in this country, that inherently makes you not entitled to anything,” Diaz said. “You spend your whole existence trying to prove other people wrong about that.”

Muñoz and Diaz said the current hold on DACA puts immense pressure on DACA recipients, many of whom feel left in the dark about their immigration status. The DACA application halt has not stopped all undocumented students from enrolling at the University, but they are now enrolling as undocumented and not DACA-documented.

“Currently, the program is still there,” Diaz said. “Hopefully it stays safe and expands and allows more people to apply.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering if President Trump can continue with a shutdown of DACA for nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants, and the decision would determine if DACA has an immediate end as opposed to a gradual wind-down. However, a decision is not expected until 2020, and if a Democrat wins the 2020 presidential race, Trump may lose his chance to end the program altogether.   

Muñoz echoed Diaz’ sentiments, noting in his senior year of high school he was unaware he could attend the University as an undocumented student. Fear of revealing his immigration status to the University restrained him from asking for help, he said. 

“My dream in high school was to get here as a freshman, but I didn’t even think that an undocumented person could come here,” Muñoz said. “Disclosing status is very scary, so I didn’t try and ask anyone here. It’s a big institution, it’s also a public institution which has ties to the government, so I wasn’t going to disclose. If I could have come here as a freshman I would have done so. I couldn’t, also, financially so I decided to go through community college.” 

Muñoz said starting his GoFundMe was terrifying because he had to disclose his undocumented status — possibly endangering his family by openly sharing his status with strangers on the Internet. 

“I was terrified, I had fear of backlash, I had fear of failure,” Muñoz said. “Now that my status is disclosed, at first it was okay, but after a day, I got a hateful message. And then more and more started just showing up … I see that it’s getting shared more and more and that means more people are going to know my status. I knew this came with it, I knew it was a risk, but this was my last resort … I don’t want to give up on being an architect.”

In October 2017, the U-M Student Community for Progressive Empowerment held a rally with four key requests: clearer resources for undocumented prospective students, an extension of the requirements to qualify for in-state tuition, a point person within administration for undocumented students and fully met financial aid for those who qualify.  

Broekhuizen cited the University’s resources for DACA recipients and other undocumented student as continued engagement with the undocumented community and organizations like SCOPE.  

“The University maintains a dedicated site specifically designed to address the needs of our undocumented student community,” Broekhuizen wrote. “Furthermore, the University has actively engaged with the DACA/undocumented community through the Office of Enrollment Management; Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Student Life; the International Center; CEW+; Office of Government Relations, and others to identify resources and to make transparent how DACA/Undocumented students can navigate these issues.” 

Additional resources Broekhuizen highlighted included undocumented-specific sites for admissions, financial aid and Rackham, as well as the Spanish-language sites for admissions and financial aid

Muñoz said the community of staff, faculty and students he found at the University has helped him engage with the process of appealing and advocating for policy change all while continuing his education. Although he cannot currently take courses at the University due to his outstanding tuition fees, Muñoz has been able to continue working with an urban planner at the Taubman College. 

“I love the professors … they’re very attentive to my whole situation and they were willing to help me with anything. I found a great support system here with the students,” Muñoz said. “I tried to integrate myself as much as I can in the community. I've been doing research for professors since I got here, even before that I did a summer fellowship. I think the community here has been very supportive, it’s just been that I ran into this policy.

Muñoz said he hopes to finish his bachelor’s degree and work on policies to help vulnerable communities. 

“I want to work on policies that are affecting communities like this,” Muñoz said. “I currently live in a community that’s being affected by big developers, getting displaced, getting literally a bridge cut through them and getting isolated.”

For now, Muñoz is continuing to work as a research assistant.  

“I found a real drive now and a passion to serve my community, and be a part of my community, and help them be educated and have the resources they need,” Muñoz said. “This experience has definitely taught me to work in my community and to use my voice right and not be afraid. To continue to stand up for my community as much as I can.”

 
Correction: an earlier version of this article had incorrectly addressed Henry Ford College as Henry Ford Community College.