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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Top Students Caught In Immigration Debate Find Spots In Private Colleges

Courtesy of Wingate University

College is hard for many students and families to afford. But take federal financial aid out of the picture, plus in-state rates for public colleges and paying for school becomes nearly impossible. That’s the challenge for students in North Carolina who are here illegally or have deferred status. Some private colleges in the Charlotte area are reaching out to these students. 

Zuleyma Castrejon graduated from high school in Union County with a 4.6 GPA. She was born in Mexico and started kindergarten not speaking any English. But she learned quickly.

“In first grade, I started taking advanced classes and I’ve been in advanced classes since first grade,” says Castrejon.    

Credit Lisa Miller / Zuleyma Castrejon got a full-ride to Johnson C Smith University in Charlotte.
Zuleyma Castrejon got a full-ride to Johnson C Smith University in Charlotte.

Her college options were limited because she was in the country illegally. So public schools were off the table unless she paid out-of-state tuition. She says several private colleges offered good scholarships, but she still would have had to pay a few thousand dollars.

This happens to a lot of kids, but most kids have another option. They can get federal loans to fill the gap. Castrejon, because of her status, could not. 

Fortunately, Johnson C. Smith University offered her a full ride.

“If it wouldn’t have been for the scholarship, honestly, that I received, I don’t know how I would be paying. We still struggle so much to pay the bills and it doesn’t even include my tuition,” says Castrejon.    

She now has what’s called deferred status. This is a designation for people who came to the country illegally as children with their parents. The status means she can work legally as long as she applies for it every two years. 

She’s one of about 100 students at Johnson C Smith who have deferred status or are in the country illegally. JCSU began working with the Latin American Coalition four years ago to attract these top students who have limited options.

But Castrejon had straight A’s with a high SAT score. What about your average student?

“It is very difficult if you have a mediocre or average GPA to get into college if you’re undocumented,” says Megan Walsh. She’s with the Latin American Coalition and counsels a lot of these students.

Walsh explains many of these students take the community college route and their goal is to transfer to a four-year college. But in reality, she says, many aren’t able to make that transition because they still must pay out-of-state tuition and taking that longer route can be discouraging.

Wingate University is another option for some students. The school enrolls about ten students a year who are here illegally or have deferred status. Most of them also receive money through outside scholarship funds targeted at students in their situation.  

“There are many noble reasons to do it like all the richness of experience it brings to our campus, just how bright and industrious and hard-working and good-natured so many of these students are,” says Rhett Brown who oversees admissions at Wingate. 

But there are pragmatic reasons too.

“I just think looking at demographic trends it’s wise for institutions to plan for the future and understand that this is going to be a growing population that we’re going to be called on to serve,” says Brown.   

Having some Latino students on campus is a way to attract more. 

Many of these students come through the Latin American Coalition. The Coalition runs workshops for students and adults interested in college. The students hear they can attend college, but must keep their grades up. They also hear they’ll pay out-of-state rates for public colleges in North Carolina. 

But that varies by state and now there is some question whether deferred status should allow these students to establish residency and pay in-state rates. Attorney General Roy Cooper has said it doesn’t. 

Many other states have come up with the same interpretation. But at least eighteen states now allow students who either have deferred status or are in the country illegally to pay in-state rates. Texas even has a program to allow them to take out loans. Several other states like South Carolina and Georgia don’t allow these students to enroll in public colleges at all.  

Many of these students are pinning their hopes on the passage of the DREAM Act. It would give them a path to citizenship. However, it would still be up to states to allow these students to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.