Hampshire College, a private liberal arts college in Amherst, has created a financial aid endowment specifically for students who are in the country illegally, an unusually targeted response to the divisive issue of whether undocumented immigrants should receive college assistance.
The school, known for its progressive bent and alternative approach, began soliciting donations for the fund from alumni, parents, and students earlier this year and has so far raised more than $300,000. This fall, the fund will provide $25,000 to one student, and the college hopes it will become a consistent source of support for undocumented students, who are ineligible for federal grants and loans. Without assistance, many students here illegally find the price of attending college prohibitive.
“This scholarship was established with gifts from private donors who want to support students who were brought to this country as babies or young children, who have attended US schools, who feel this is their home, and who wish to continue their educations,” Elaine Thomas, a spokeswoman for the college, said Thursday.
While many private colleges and universities provide financial aid to students without legal status, higher education specialists said they had not heard of a school raising money specifically for undocumented students.
From a school with a reputation for activism, the move delivered a clear political message amid the sharp national debate about immigration policy and the fate of undocumented students who came here as children.
Immigrant advocates hailed the move for giving such immigrant students a better chance to attend college and for making a statement that they deserve the same financial assistance citizens receive.
“We commend them for this wonderful initiative,” said Eva Millona, who directs the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “There are so many brilliant, high-achieving students who will take advantage of this. This is a win-win, for the students and for Massachusetts.”
Critics countered that the fund was flatly discriminatory, giving help to illegal immigrants at the expense of citizens.
“Where’s the concern for them?” asked Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports tighter controls on illegal immigration. “It seems as if they are more concerned with making a political statement.”
He said the college was misusing its tax-exempt status by giving undocumented students special treatment.
“They have an obligation not to aid and abet people in violation of federal immigration law,” he said.
Thomas said the college does not believe the policy discriminates against other students, and is not worried about being singled out for criticism.
“We work very hard to raise money for all students with financial need,” she said.
The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported the endowment Thursday.
Fund-raising began in the spring and was spearheaded by Margaret Cerullo, a sociology professor. When the college announced the endowment last month, Cerullo cited a student project on undocumented students as inspiration.
“Many of us who went to college in the post-World War II boom went on full scholarships. All financial aid was need-based. Increasingly that’s not true anymore,” Cerullo said in the July announcement. “For a lot of us, access to higher education is a deep principle.”
Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said the focused campaign was unusual, but in keeping with efforts by the state’s private colleges to provide financial aid regardless of immigration status. Instead of setting aside aid for a certain type of student, colleges generally allocate it broadly, he said.
Hampshire College’s efforts also rekindle the debate over whether undocumented students should be given more help in paying for college. Since 2001, 13 states have extended in-state tuition rates at public universities to undocumented students who meet certain requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“It’s an increasing trend,” said John Burkhardt, a higher education professor at the University of Michigan. Noting that undocumented students cannot receive federal financial aid, Burkhart praised Hampshire’s efforts to address a moral and practical problem.
“It constitutes an important example,” he said. “They should be commended.”
Each year, as many as 65,000 undocumented children, many of whom attended school in the United States since the first grade, graduate from high school, according to a February report by the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good. Between 5 and 10 percent of these students enroll in college, the report stated.
Nationally, California, Texas, and New Mexico allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid. New York is considering legislation to do the same.
Undocumented students in Massachusetts are not eligible for state financial aid and must pay out-of-state rates for tuition at public colleges.
While undocumented students with the means are often able to attend college, some schools require verification of citizenship.
A survey by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators found that about 10 percent of private colleges, and nearly one-third of religiously affiliated schools, do not admit students without legal status.