California Assembly Bill 540 is a law that is rarely talked about, but has a high impact on college students.
AB 540, signed in October 2001, allows undocumented students to only pay in-state tuition at any California public college or university if they meet three basic qualifications.
These students must have attended a California high school for three or more years, must have received a diploma or its equivalent, and must sign an affidavit that states that they will apply for legal residency in the United States as soon as they are eligible.
“The purpose of this law is to provide opportunity and to help a population that probably wouldn’t go to college otherwise,” said James Maraviglia, assistant vice president of admissions, recruitment and financial aid at Cal Poly.
Another piece of legislation currently being considered is the California Dream Act (SB 160) which allows students eligible for AB 540 to apply for and receive grants and loans from California universities. It is meant to counteract their inability to apply for financial aid through the FAFSA.
The Dream Act is based off of the concept that these students are here already, and should be given every opportunity to become more productive and useful members of society.
For those students in the California State University system, this means that they would pay an average of $2,575 this year for in-state tuition rather than the $12,420 all out-of-state students paid.
“AB 540 doesn’t mean you get accepted into college based on your ethnicity, but once you’re in, it gives you help to keep you there,” said Bryan Parker, computer engineering junior at University of California, Los Angeles.
As a member of the Center for Engineering Excellence and Diversity, a group of minority engineers at UCLA, Parker said he has spent time around a number of students eligible for AB 540. Parker said that these students are just as worthy of a college education as anyone else, but that their circumstances often make it extremely hard to pay for college.
These students are also handicapped financially because they are not allowed to apply for state or federal grants and loans. Since all of this money is dispersed through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which requires a social security number to apply, these students are exempt because they aren’t citizens.
Parker pointed out that often these students have grown up in the United States, and sometimes don’t even know that they are here illegally because their parents have not informed them.
“It’s not fair that if they’ve lived here all their lives they should still have to pay out-of-state tuition, that’s what the bill tries to fix,” Parker said.
Maraviglia said that students at Cal Poly who are eligible for AB 540 went through the same strenuous application process as any other student.
“We compare merit because it’s a privilege to attend Cal Poly and they earn that privilege based by merit just like everyone else,” Maraviglia said.
Since nearly 60,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year, and 40 percent of those students are in California, this bill has had a large impact.
Maraviglia said that since Cal Poly does not track these students or gather statistics on them, he could not give an accurate account of how many students on campus the bill has helped.
Some opponents of the law point out that the bill unfairly benefits non-citizens, giving them opportunities not granted to citizens, Parker said.
AB 540 has also dealt with the problem of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), all student records are confidential. This means that even if a student applies for AB 540, they will not be reported to INS.
In addition, their status shows up nowhere in their records, meaning that they are virtually untraceable on paper.
Since AB 540 does not apply to private institutions, grant legal residency or help with financial aid, it has some definite shortcomings. However, for many students, it makes the difference between getting a college education or not.