Tufts University announced Tuesday it will "proactively and openly" recruit undocumented students and offer financial aid to eligible undergraduate students, a clear declaration that immigration advocates hailed as a significant victory.
Under the new policy, the private university will consider all students who are in the country illegally as regular domestic applicants, eligible for the same university aid as US citizens. Because undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid, the university will make up the difference out of its funds for undergraduates who cannot afford to pay their own way.
"In keeping with our current undergraduate financial aid policy, Tufts will meet 100 percent of the demonstrated need of every undocumented student offered undergraduate admission to Tufts," the university said in a statement.
Tufts joins a growing number of private universities that are now accepting undocumented students and awarding them financial aid, adding a new facet to a long-running debate.
Yet analysts say Tufts's forthright show of support for students in the country illegally, and a pledge to bring more of them to campus, stands in sharp contrast to many colleges, who quietly accept such students as international applicants but rarely provide enough financial aid for them to attend.
Harvard University does not consider immigration status in admissions and directs undocumented students to apply for financial aid as international students.
Pomona and Oberlin colleges say they do not distinguish undocumented students from domestic students when reviewing applications.
New York University has launched a pilot program to offer financial aid to eligible undocumented students from New York.
"We're sympathetic to the circumstances and difficulties undocumented students face," the university states on its website.
Last week, Emory University announced it would provide financial aid for students who qualify for the 2012 federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
The Tufts policy applies to all undocumented students, not just those who qualify under the deferred action program.
"We told the administration that wasn't enough," said Zobella Vinik, a Tufts senior and president of United for Immigrant Justice, one of the student groups that lobbied for the change.
Vinik and other students said they hope the new policy will help attract undocumented students who would otherwise assume they would not be able to afford such an expensive school without federal aid.
"Tufts is committed to making up that gap," Vinik said. "This has been a huge barrier."
Under the policy, the university said it recently accepted and offered financial aid packages to at least five undocumented students for the fall semester. The university will also create a group to discuss ways to encourage more undocumented students to apply.
An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate US high schools each year, and their ability to attend college has been the subject of a divisive, long-running debate.
Before the change, Tufts did not knowingly accept undocumented students, a university spokeswoman said. It met the demonstrated financial need of all accepted students, including international.
The university made the change after concluding it "reflected the policies of our peers and aligned with federal guidelines."
Critics of illegal immigration said the change was misguided and would wind up depriving some US students of admission and financial aid opportunities.
"It is a mystery to me why an institution like Tufts would want to encourage students who are in the country illegally to attend," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., research group. "It allows students who are here illegally to access programs that are scarce and should be used to benefit legally present students. It's a strange message to be sending."
Much of the debate has focused on public colleges' handling of undocumented students. At least 18 states allow them to pay in-state tuition rates.
In 2012, Massachusetts allowed students who qualified for the deferred action program to receive the lower in-state rate.
Roberto Gonzales, assistant professor of education at Harvard University, said Tufts's explicit policy would probably attract undocumented students, who face a confusing set of rules that vary widely from school to school.
"I think across the country there's a lot of confusion," he said. "This is an important symbolic gesture."
Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.