Weld County commissioners: Students in country illegally won’t get grant money | MyWindsorNow.com

Weld County commissioners: Students in country illegally won’t get grant money

Tyler Silvy
tsilvy@greeleytribune.com

A workforce development program that promises most Weld County high school graduates $3,000 per year for higher education will leave out students living in the country illegally.

Weld County commissioners on Tuesday announced the Weld County Bright Futures grant program at Aims Community College. The first-of-its-kind program will be funded through donations offset by property tax rebates provided by the county.

"Right now the program is for legal residents," said Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway after the announcement.

The grant program promises $3,000 per year — up to a maximum of $12,000 for four years — to nearly all Weld County high school graduates starting in 2016. It makes the same promise to those who earn a G.E.D. next year, and honorably discharged veterans who graduated from a Weld high school since 2006.

But immigrants who came to the United States illegally — 10 percent of Weld County's population, according to the most recent census data — won't qualify.

Despite enthusiasm for the program, K-12 school district officials, including those in Greeley-Evans School District 6, are concerned that a portion of their districts' student body won't be eligible.

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"I recognize that those students need a shot as well," said Roger DeWitt, District 6 School Board president. "I think that maybe could be a feature that could be looked at on the state level. Those kids are part of our future."

District 6 officials don't keep track of such students, and they wouldn't prevent those students from attending school, District 6 spokeswoman Theresa Myers said.

Aims Community College and the University of Northern Colorado also allow students without legal documentation to attend. Although those students cannot receive federal student aid, both schools have internal financial aid programs for undocumented students. The two institutions have about 100 students who entered the country illegally, and those students pay in-state tuition thanks to a bill signed into law in spring 2013 called ASSET, or Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow.

Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, voted for the ASSET legislation, and he also was a sponsor of Senate Bill 82, which paved the way for Colorado counties to offer property tax rebates in the manner of Weld County's Bright Futures grant program. He said he didn't interpret that bill to be exclusionary.

"I think the spirit of the bill is we want all students to be successful," Young said. "County commissioners are choosing to interpret it a different way, and that's their option. But I wouldn't go that way myself if I were designing the program."

Commissioners say they designed the program to provide opportunities while strengthening Weld County's workforce — both of which, they said, would help attract businesses and keep Weld County's economy cooking.

But the program allows legal citizens to take the money to any college in the country without a promise to come back and boost the Weld workforce. More than 180 Weld County high school graduates in 2013 attended a higher education institution outside of Colorado, according to Colorado Department of Higher Education.

If 10 percent of the roughly 2,250 annual Weld County high school graduates don't qualify for the program, that means 225 students will be out of luck.

County commissioners said they don't know how many of those students would eventually find their way back to Weld County, and therefore have a positive impact on the county's workforce.

Conway said a citizens advisory committee would take up the question almost immediately and that committee could decide to reinstate the program for undocumented students. "If, over a period of discussions and input from school districts and citizens, there's a desire to look at this differently, then we'll certainly look at it," Conway said. District 6 school board member John Haefeli said he hopes that happens.

"I think it's important that all the students in the county, no matter what their origin is, have an opportunity to go on to be successful citizens," Haefeli said.

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