As leaders in Higher Education, we understand that education is intrinsically connected to achieving the American Dream. At Connecticut State College and Universities (CSCU), a system of public institutions, we educate approximately 90,000 students a year, the majority of whom live and work in in our state.

These students are the future workforce, future leaders, future upholders of our democracy. At CSCU, we have always believe that education should be accessible to anyone who wants it and we are committed to eliminating any barriers students may have to achieving that American Dream. We are fortunate to live in a state that supports this principle.

In 2011, while I was serving as the governor’s chief of staff, we passed a law allowing undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition prices at our public higher education institutions. Initially four years of residency were required for eligibility — in 2014 we changed it to two. In the last two years, another bill came before our General Assembly that would have provided undocumented students access to institutional aid.

Fundamentally this legislation is about equality and justice because a portion of tuition all students pay is dedicated towards institutional aid, thereby, undocumented students are paying into a fund they cannot access. This is not a hand out – it is access to a service they are paying for other students to use.  Undocumented students don’t qualify for federal assistance such as Pell Grants so institutional aid is usually the only help available to them. While this legislation passed in one chamber, it did not make it through the entire General Assembly but we continue to be very strong supporters. 

These actions gained the attention of a national foundation, however, and the result is a new path for undocumented students to share in the dream of education. Just last month, CSCU formed a partnership with TheDream.US, a national scholarship fund for undocumented students, sometimes known as Dreamers. A portion of the partnership extends in-state tuition along with an academic scholarship to out-of-state Dreamers at one of our premiere four year universities. The students must be from one of 16 “locked out” states where Dreamers either don’t qualify for in-state tuition even if they have lived there most of their lives or, as in the state of Georgia, are prohibited from attending state schools altogether because of their immigration status. The academic scholarship, known as the Opportunity Scholarship, covers tuition, room and board paid for through private funding for approximately 41 out-of-state students and in-state tuition costs for five Dreamers from within state of Connecticut.

Within days of the announcement hundreds of applications were submitted, and starting next year, undocumented students will attend Eastern Connecticut State University. The majority of these students have 3.0 GPAs or better.

Dreamers are residents who were brought here as children. Their wish is to stay here, work here, buy a home and raise a family typical things that most of us wish to achieve. It doesn’t matter where you came from, it matters where you want to be. Many Dreamers represent an untapped talent that is needed by our businesses and our communities and society. The Opportunity Scholarship shares the opportunity of education with students that will potentially stay in Connecticut and get jobs with no cost to them or to the state. 

As Lin Manuel-Miranda said in his University of Pennsylvania commencement speech, “In a year when politicians traffic an anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphaned immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done.”

I firmly believe if we provide all students who seek to pursue higher education with a foreseeable path to attain it, we will continue to strengthen our state colleges and universities and fulfill our obligation to educate tomorrow’s workforce. We may discover that doing the right thing is also good for business.

Part of the unique value at CSCU is the diversity of our student population. Our philosophy and our history shows our commitment to providing a safe learning environment that encourages and celebrates diversity and fosters a culture of inclusion. That same diversity also prepares our graduates for the 21st century workforce that awaits them.  By expanding access to DREAMERS, we have an opportunity to positively impact lives, create a stronger democracy and let more young people share in the American Dream. 

Mark Ojakian is president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System.

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