DACA college students to lose money to Virginia HBCUs

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A measure in Virginia’s new two-year budget is drawing criticism for redirecting funding for undocumented college students to students at historically Black colleges and universities in the state.

The money — $10 million over two years — had been earmarked for state financial aid for undocumented immigrants, who are barred from receiving federal student loans and grants. Instead, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) asked the General Assembly to give the money to students at Virginia’s five private and public HBCUs — Virginia University of Lynchburg, along with Hampton, Virginia Union, Norfolk State and Virginia State universities.

“Shame on the governor for weaponizing state financial aid as a cheap political ploy to divide communities of color,” said Sookyung Oh, director of Hamkae Center, a civil rights organization in Virginia. “If education was important to this governor, as he claimed throughout his campaign, he could have easily allocated funding to ensure every young Virginian who wants to pursue higher education in the Commonwealth has the resources to do so.”

Critics of the measure say it perpetuates a false scarcity problem at a time when Virginia has a budget surplus, and it demands that lawmakers sacrifice one needy group of students for another.

“I understand and agree that we need to do something for HBCUs. This is not the way to do it. This is messy,” Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), head of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, told the House before a vote on the amendment Friday. “We have more than enough resources to help.”

Some critics also accused the governor of “pitting” the groups against each other, a charge Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter on Tuesday disputed.

“This is a typical divisive Democrat talking point to claim that one group was ‘pitted’ against another,” Porter said. “The reality is, Governor Youngkin committed to providing necessary funding to HBCUs and with this budget, he’s delivering on that commitment.”

University leaders at Virginia’s five HBCUs did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Youngkin’s amendment. The schools have for years petitioned lawmakers for fiscal support on par with predominantly White institutions in the state.

Financial need is high at HBCUs, where many students come from low-income households. Generations of meager state appropriations, paltry donations and inequitable federal funding have left the universities without institutional resources to fund robust scholarships, making every additional dollar crucial.

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Financial need is also high among undocumented immigrants, who have limited resources to finance their education. Although some colleges set aside funds to help the population, scholarships are still scarce. Undocumented students, including those shielded from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, often struggle to pay out of pocket.

During Friday’s budget session, Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-Arlington) asked the chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, Del. Barry D. Knight (R-Virginia Beach), to explain the rationale for what he called a “zero-sum game.”

Knight said he assumed “the governor decided it was just a choice of his, that he thought, if he’s going to preference someone, he would rather preference historical Black colleges and universities as opposed to DACA.”

“I’m flabbergasted by what was just said,” Lopez responded. “What the governor is doing is pitting two high-need student groups against each other, and the chairman just admitted it.”

Del. AC Cordoza (R-Hampton) defended Youngkin’s request. “HBCUs have been historically underfunded — we’ve heard that from both sides — and the governor is trying to do something about it, and all we are hearing are complaints,” Cordoza told the House on Friday.

Youngkin proposed that half of the $10 million be used to supplement in-state student aid at Norfolk State and Virginia State universities, which are public institutions. The rest of the money will increase Virginia Tuition Assistance Grants, a form of aid for residents attending private colleges and universities, to $7,500 from $5,000 a year for students enrolled in historically Black institutions.

The Republican-controlled House passed the budget amendment on a party-line vote. The measure narrowly cleared the Senate with support from two Democrats — Sens. Joseph D. Morrissey (Richmond) and Lionell Spruill (Chesapeake). Spruill did not respond to requests for comment, but Morrissey’s office deferred to his floor speech on the amendment.

“By voting for this bill we are supporting students at HBCUs. That’s the bottom line. That’s why I’m going to support it,” Morrissey told lawmakers Friday. “I’ve been to Virginia State … and personally spoken to students who would not be there but for grants that were given to them.”

The measure is among three dozen amendments Youngkin proposed after House and Senate negotiators reached a deal on a $165 billion two-year budget plan this month.

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Before leaving the governor’s office in 2021, Ralph Northam (D) signed legislation allowing undocumented and DACA students to receive in-state tuition and apply for financial assistance.

However, Lopez is concerned that there are no clear assurances from Youngkin that his administration will uphold the law as written and guarantee undocumented students equal access to state financial aid.

Cordoza argued that the governor would not use “some loose interpretation to hurt a community.” He called accusations that Youngkin was pitting groups against each other “ridiculous.”

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