Should Parents’ Citizenship Status Affect Child’s Rights to Financial Aid?

Financing a higher education is a daunting task that has high school seniors from all walks vying for whatever tuition aid is available. Because need far exceeds availability these days, it is only logical that criteria for eligibility be set. But when a New Jersey teenager’s application for state aid was rejected recently, it raised the question of whether a child born in this country should be denied such benefits because of his or her parents’ immigration status. (1)

Generally, state and federal student aid is available only to U.S. citizens, permanent residents or certain other eligible non-citizens. (2) Whether states should extend this aid to children of illegal immigrants has been the topic of hot debate not only in New Jersey but across the country. Supporters say children should not be punished for the actions of their parents. Opponents, on the other hand, fear that granting financial assistance to children of illegal immigrants would deplete funds available for legal residents and/or put an undue burden on taxpayers. Proposed legislation that would have made illegal immigrants eligible for in-state tuition rates in New Jersey did not even win enough support for a vote. (3)

The New Jersey case currently in the media and the courts puts a slightly different twist on the issue, however: the student at the center of this case was born in this country, making her a legal citizen. Like many of her peers, she applied to the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) for a Tuition Aid Grant. HESAA rejected the application on the basis that her mother was not a legal resident. That decision is being appealed. (1)

HESAA eligibility requirements for state aid include, among other things, students being able to prove they have “domiciled” in the state for at least one year prior to school period for which they are seeking aid. For students under legal age, the burden of proof falls to their parents. (1)

Because the student in this case is just 17 years old, it is her parents’ residency status that HESAA considered. Since the mother is reportedly in this country illegally, it raises the question of how she can be a legal New Jersey resident. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is arguing, however, that state and federal constitutions prohibit discrimination against U.S. citizens and supersede HESAA requirements. (3)



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