(USA TODAY) -- Social justice is central to the mission of Dominican University, a small private Catholic college in suburban Chicago. Serving poor immigrants is part of its history.
So as the school began to get more applications where Social Security numbers weren't provided, there was never a question of turning qualified undocumented students away, President Donna Carroll says. This year, the school pulled together $274,000 in financial aid for 17 undocumented students. Despite pushback from some donors and alumni, Carroll says her only regret is that she can't help more students.
"Is it controversial? Yes," she says. But "it's against the law to discriminate against any student group. You need to start from that premise."
Each year, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools, says a report by the College Board. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities estimates that between 5% and 10% go on to college.
Most of the debate about illegal immigration and higher education has centered on whether undocumented students should be allowed to pay lower in-state tuition rates at public schools, but as undocumented students become more visible and vocal about their status, some higher-priced private colleges are being pressed to consider policies to make tuition more affordable for them.
The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, of which Dominican is a member, is urging its schools to enroll and assist undocumented students. On many campuses, though, students are leading the charge.
At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where tuition alone will run about $43,000 next year, a student group this spring raised $10,000 to help an undocumented classmate pay tuition. It's also calling on its administration to offer scholarships, work-study options and advising for undocumented students.
At Haverford College, just outside Philadelphia, students recently passed a resolution asking the school to give undocumented students "fair, need-blind admissions consideration." Similar campaigns were launched at nearby Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr.
'Encourages illegal aliens to remain'
Organizers say such policies would encourage more undocumented students to go to college.
"Our most important goal is to empower and liberate undocumented students, so we can come out of the shadows," says Jessica Hyejin Lee, 20, an undocumented Bryn Mawr student from South Korea and co-founder of Students for Undocumented Dreams & Decision Equity Now.
The non-profit Federation for American Immigration Reform, an advocacy group that opposes tuition breaks for undocumented students. "Just because there's an absence of a legal prohibition does not mean it is ethical," says spokeswoman Kristen Williamson. "It still encourages illegal aliens to remain in the country."
Raj Kannappan, 21, president of Cornell's College Republicans, says that if Cornell offers financial aid for undocumented students, "there's going to have to be a justification for why that aid can't go to students who are enrolled legally." But he doesn't expect much to happen in favor of undocumented students. "There's a lot of talk about it, but no one's really doing anything about it because a lot of people would not be in favor," he says.
Many college officials aren't resisting student demands, but they're not exactly embracing them either.
"We don't have any philosophical objection to what the students are proposing and in fact agree with them," says Jess Lord, Haverford's dean of admissions and financial aid. But "we have limited funds available to provide financial aid, which dictates how many students with need we can take." To Lord's knowledge, Haverford doesn't enroll undocumented students.
Illinois takes welcoming approach
A study last year involving 447 colleges found that 57% of private and 29% of public schools provide undocumented students with aid. That suggests some schools "are trying to work with students to resolve this problem," says John Burkhardt, director of the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good, based at the University of Michigan.
Even so, of 2,650 institutions surveyed for the study, just 17% responded, suggesting to Burkhardt that "institutions feel they can serve more students and take care of more cases by staying under the radar."
In Illinois, lawmakers and activists have approached the issue from another angle. A law passed last year allows immigrant families to contribute to the state's two college savings programs, authorizes private donors to create a government-backed scholarship for undocumented students and requires that high school counselors be trained on college options for undocumented students.
For students at Dominican, the word is out. "When undocumented students apply to a school it's because they've already heard that it's welcoming," says freshman Arianna Salgado, 19, an undocumented student who was born in Mexico and has lived in the USA since age 6. "It makes you really comfortable with the whole application process."
Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY. Contributing: Elizabeth Held