Critics blast Emory University plan to help undocumented students

The entrance to Emory University’s campus. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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The entrance to Emory University’s campus. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Some critics of an incoming policy by Emory University to provide need-based financial aid to undocumented first-year students are suggesting the Trump administration should withhold federal funding to the private institution.

Emory officials, though, say critics have misinterpreted how the policy works.

Beginning this fall, Emory will offer “100 percent of demonstrated financial need” for undocumented undergraduate students who graduated from a U.S. high school. The financial help would come from a combination of university-based grants and scholarships, work study and loans, Emory says on its website.

Emory’s plan has been condemned this week on right-leaning websites and on social media.

A post Saturday on a site called PJ Media, for example, said: “The solution is simple. If you’re a citizen of another country in the U.S. legally on a student visa, drop out of school, sneak back into the U.S. illegally, and reapply at Emory claiming you’re “undocumented.” Forget all those fuddy-duddies who might say it’s not fair that someone who broke the law to get here is entitled to benefits that law-abiding students aren’t eligible for. You’re behind the times, man.”

Prominent Georgia Republican strategist Julianne Thompson said criticism of the policy has “lit up” Facebook and Twitter. She thinks Emory should have its federal funding withheld if it goes through with the program.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” Thompson said Tuesday. “It’s a reward for breaking the law.”

Emory's financial aid director John Leach stressed no federal or state funds are used for the program, which began in 2015 and was updated for this fall. Leach cited federal guidelines that say undocumented students may be eligible for aid from a college or university.

“There is a lot of misinformation that has been put forth,” Leach said.

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Protestors occupied and chanted in the Board of Regents seats during a March 2016 meeting, then marched around the 8th floor, before some of them returned to the seats and were arrested. The students protested Georgia’s tuition policies that require undocumented students to pay more expensive out-of-state tuition at Georgia’s public colleges. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Protestors occupied and chanted in the Board of Regents seats during a March 2016 meeting, then marched around the 8th floor, before some of them returned to the seats and were arrested. The students protested Georgia’s tuition policies that require undocumented students to pay more expensive out-of-state tuition at Georgia’s public colleges. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Combined ShapeCaption
Protestors occupied and chanted in the Board of Regents seats during a March 2016 meeting, then marched around the 8th floor, before some of them returned to the seats and were arrested. The students protested Georgia’s tuition policies that require undocumented students to pay more expensive out-of-state tuition at Georgia’s public colleges. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Emory, he said, will review the prospective student’s income tax records before determining how much aid a student can receive.

The average need-based award for an undergraduate student is about $38,000 a year, Leach said. Emory’s undergraduate tuition, student housing and other fees this fall is nearly $67,000.

Leach declined to say how many undocumented students were at Emory this school year, citing federal privacy guidelines. He insisted the number of undocumented Emory students was small.

Leach wouldn’t respond to criticism about Emory’s policy, but said it was originally done to admit top students.

“We want the most highly-qualified, the strongest students,” he said.

Emory received nearly $390 million from federal agencies in fiscal year 2016, the university said on its website. About 85 percent of that money came from the National Institutes of Health. Emory's Woodruff Health Sciences Center received about $365 million, with most of that money also coming from the NIH. The university's total revenue for the 2015-16 school year was about $2 billion, with an endowment of close to $7 billion, according to its factbook.

Some colleges offer funding paths for undocumented students similar to Emory's. Brown University announced in September it would meet 100 percent of each student's demonstrated financial need, starting this fall. Loyola University Chicago has a scholarship fund for undocumented students to which students, faculty and alumni can contribute. In 2015, that university's students passed a referendum to increase its student development fees by $2.50 a semester to support undocumented Loyola undergraduate students who demonstrated financial need but do not qualify for federal financial aid.

Emory has been at the center of several politically charged disputes over the past year. The university announced in January it wouldn't become a "sanctuary campus" for undocumented students, despite an online petition by students and faculty urging that step. Emory said it could be misinterpreted as Emory disobeying federal law.

Emory recently joined about 30 institutions in a court filing against President Donald Trump's executive order to block immigrants from six heavily Muslim nations, saying it would be detrimental to education. Last year, several students said they felt threatened by pro-Trump messages written in chalk on campus sidewalks.