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Biden admin eyes expansion of federal college prep aid to undocumented students

BY: MICHAEL STRATFORD | 01/02/2024 08:31 PM EST

The Biden administration is moving to allow undocumented students to participate in federal programs that help disadvantaged students prepare for college, proposing new assistance to a population that’s largely excluded from most federal aid.

The Education Department on Tuesday released a draft plan that would make students eligible for Upward Bound and several other federally funded college preparatory initiatives, regardless of their immigration status.

The proposal would loosen longstanding Education Department rules that restrict participation in the initiatives — collectively known as the federal TRIO Programs — to U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

The pool of funding for those programs, roughly $1.2 billion, pales in comparison to the more than $100 billion of student aid that the federal government provides each year.

But it’s one of the few student assistance programs where the Biden administration can act unilaterally to open eligibility to undocumented students. The citizenship requirement for the TRIO programs have long been part of Education Department rules, though it’s not mentioned in the underlying law that authorizes the programs.

By contrast, Congress has explicitly limited the much larger Pell grant and federal student loan programs only to U.S. citizens or some other categories of permanent residents.

President Joe Biden has asked Congress to pass a law that allows undocumented students who are shielded from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program to access federal student aid. But lawmakers haven’t done so, largely because of Republican opposition.

Colleges and universities and other advocates for the TRIO programs have long pushed the Education Department to tweak the citizenship requirement. Some Democrats leaned on the Obama administration to allow DACA recipients to access the program, without any success.

The Biden administration’s draft proposal would go further in allowing not just DACA recipients but any student who is “enrolled in or seeks to enroll in a high school” in the U.S. to participate in the programs. The changes would cover the Upward Bound program, the Talent Search program, and the Education Opportunity Centers program.

Those TRIO programs offer counseling and other support to various students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those from low-income families or whose parents did not attend college.

An Education Department spokesperson said in a statement to POLITICO on Tuesday that the agency “is looking to expand eligibility so that disadvantaged students who are already entitled to a free public education at the K-12 level have the support needed to both complete their education and access the promise of a postsecondary education.”

The Biden administration’s proposal would still retain some restrictions on undocumented students’ participation. It would prohibit, for example, undocumented students from receiving any “direct cash stipend” as part of the Upward Bound program.

While some states offer some form of financial aid to undocumented students, the largest federal programs largely exclude those students from accessing funding to help pay for college.

Federal aid for undocumented college students has been hotly debated in recent years.

In 2020, then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sought to exclude undocumented college students from receiving emergency Covid relief money that Congress approved to help pay for expenses like food, housing and child care during the pandemic. Three federal judges blocked the Trump administration’s policy in different parts of the country, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona ultimately scrapped the restrictions entirely in May 2021.

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