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Undocumented students still eligible for free tuition at HCC

Haywood Community College’s “tuition-free guarantee” seems to be off to a solid start but the school also wants residents to know that undocumented students who meet all other requirements can also take advantage of the innovative program. 

“The criteria we stated was the same for everybody,” said Dr. Michael Coleman, vice president of student services at HCC. “We didn’t want to differentiate or make it different for any particular group, and with the guarantee we said we would help anybody. So as long as they go through the process we’ve established, then we would take care of it no matter what it was.”

Announced this past February and beginning this coming fall, HCC’s guarantee means that graduates of Haywood County high schools — public, private, or homeschool — can be certain the school will cover any tuition balance that remains once financial aid determinations are made. 

Graduates with at least a 2.8 GPA and enrolled in a minimum of 12 credit hours must first complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and then apply to HCC’s own scholarship programs. Once those results come back, HCC makes up the difference between what’s awarded and what’s charged for tuition. 

The funding comes from the interest earned on HCC’s $13 million scholarship fund, endowed largely through private donations, so no taxpayer dollars are involved; for the 2019 school year, $100,000 was approved by the foundation board for the program, along with a pledge to fund two years of the guarantee. 

At the time the program was announced, Coleman told The Smoky Mountain News that the impetus was to address poverty by broadening access to educational opportunities. To date, Coleman says the program appears to be working. 

“We really have seen a huge uptick in school applications,” he said. “In hardline numbers, it’s hard to say right now because part of the criteria is that they complete the FAFSA and the scholarship application first, and then the tuition free guarantee would supplement whatever financial aid and scholarships did not cover, so we have a lot of individuals who have applied, but are still in processing so we’re not quite sure how many of these students are able to take advantage of the tuition-free guarantee.” 

Before the implementation of the tuition-free guarantee, Coleman said that less than 40 percent of HCC’s 2,500 students received financial aid, but at other institutions, that number is usually closer to 60 percent. 

Prior to HCC’s Peak Week — an enrollment drive which began July 15 and runs through the July 19 — Coleman said projected HCC enrollment might be up as much as 20 percent over last year, and applications to HCC’s scholarship fund by enrolled students were up from 102 last year to more than 300 this year. 

Some of those applications are bound to be from undocumented students, according to Haywood County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte. 

“I’m sure we have undocumented students, it’s just hard to know how many,” Nolte said. “That’s not information we collect.”

Undocumented students hoping to take advantage of the tuition-free guarantee will end up going through the same application process as any other student, but there are some important caveats. 

“They would still complete the FAFSA like anybody else,” Coleman said. “Of course, undocumented students aren’t eligible for [federal] financial aid, but they still receive an EFC (expected family contribution) on the FAFSA and we still utilize that with our scholarship application process, and they are still eligible for most of our scholarships.”

One problem with that is that some undocumented students may be wary of filling out a FAFSA, fearing the unwanted attention it could bring from immigration officials. Without a FAFSA, students aren’t eligible for HCC’s guarantee. 

Another problem is that undocumented students aren’t considered residents of North Carolina or of Haywood County, even if they’ve lived here and graduated from a Haywood County high school, as the program stipulates. 

That means they’re charged out-of-state tuition. Between that and the lack of federal dollars, an undocumented student’s tuition shortfall could be far larger than that of N.C. residents, meaning a larger bill for HCC. 

According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are approximately 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and around 320,000 in North Carolina. Of those, more than 60 percent come from Mexico, with Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and India making up most of the rest. 

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