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Transgender and undocumented students now able to access state college aid

A new law providing a mechanism for undocumented and transgender students to apply for state financial aid took effect Jan. 1, but Monday was the first day the program was up and running.

State Rep. Lisa Hernandez
State Rep. Lisa Hernandez, D-Cicero, lead sponsor of a bill to allow transgender and undocumented college students to access state aid, speaks among a coalition of elected officials and immigrant rights groups at a news conference in Pilsen in 2018.
Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

A loophole preventing undocumented and some transgender students from seeking financial aid in Illinois officially closed this week — and state officials say “several dozen” people have already moved to take advantage of the change.

The new law providing a state mechanism for undocumented and transgender students to apply for Illinois financial aid took effect Jan. 1, but Monday was the first day the program was up and running.

Previously, undocumented and some transgender students could not apply for state financial aid due to a technicality that prevented them from using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) program.

Many Illinois students apply for aid using the U.S. Education Department administered program, which allows them to simultaneously apply for both state and federal aid. Before the new state law, there was not a stand-alone application for state aid, meaning undocumented and some transgender students, who cannot get aid under the federal program, had no way to apply for state aid.

“There wasn’t another mechanism for obtaining financial aid from the state,” said Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz. “Now we’ve created this new avenue that has solved this problem.”

Jesse Ruiz in 2015. File Photo.
Jesse Ruiz in 2015. File Photo.
Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times

Ruiz added that “several dozen” people applied using the new Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid on Monday, the first day it went live.

The new law, dubbed the Retention of Illinois Students and Equity Act, faced some opposition when it passed the General Assembly last year.

The state House vote was 66-47, and the state Senate 35-15.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bill into law June 21.

It is designed to address problems preventing some transgender and undocumented students from receiving the same financial help available to other students.

Transgender people who are required to register with the Selective Service System, but decide not to, are not eligible for Federal Student Aid. Under federal law, men between the ages of 18 and 26 years old are required to register for Selective Service, a system that keeps a list of eligible men in case the federal government revives the military draft.

Under Selective Service regulations, women are exempt from registration. So are those who identify as male, but were born female. People who identify as female, but were born male, are still required to register. In order to receive federal aid, college students who fall under the selective service requirements must sign up.

Undocumented immigrants, including those who participate in the program for Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA), are also not eligible for Federal Student Aid.

“In order to build a stronger and more equitable Illinois, we must invest in our young people and make college more affordable,” said state Rep. Elizabeth “Lisa” Hernandez (D-Cicero), the lead sponsor of the RISE Act, in a statement. “The Illinois RISE Act expands opportunity to all students, regardless of race, immigration status or gender identity.”

The General Assembly approved an additional $50 million for the Monetary Award Program, which gives grants to low-income students, grants that students can now apply to directly.