Only a few hundred students are expected to initially enroll in South Florida universities as a result of new legislation aiding undocumented immigrants with tuition breaks, but for them it's a major milestone.
"It's an incredible feeling," said Brayan Vazquez, 19, a Mexican native who arrived here when he was 11 and who graduated in 2013 from Olympic Heights High, west of Boca Raton. "So many people who have been left out of college have been waiting for this."
Under the bill approved Friday, students who went to high school in Florida for at least three years would pay in-state rates, regardless of their immigration status. Gov. Rick Scott supports the bill, which also limits tuition increases at state universities, lowers the costs of Florida Prepaid college savings plans and relaxes the residency requirements for veterans to receive in-state tuition.
An estimated 5,000 undocumented students graduate from Florida high schools every year, according to the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
At Florida Atlantic University, their tuition and fees drop from $21,000 to about $6,000. At Broward College and Palm Beach State College, it falls from about $11,000 to about $3,100.
Florida International University and Miami Dade College started offering the cheaper in-state rates last year, but others had resisted, saying it was a decision for the state to make.
Vazquez said he has been frustrated at his lack of affordable options for college.
"I tried everything I could to cope. I had saved some money, but several colleges wouldn't give me any financial aid because of my immigration status," he said.
For the past year, he's been taking public transportation from his Boynton Beach home to Miami-Dade College's north campus, nearly 60 miles away. He planned to transfer to FIU, but he said the new law will allow him to attend FAU, which is much closer to home.
Daniel Delvalle, 19, of Palm Springs, has been working to pay the out-of-state tuition rate at Palm Beach State, but said unexpected costs, such as a car repair or medical expense, make it tough.
"This is a relief, and not just for me," said Delvalle, who came to Florida from Venezuela when he was 3.
He said the high tuition has caused many high school students to be unmotivated to do well in school and take advanced placement classes because "they've had no hope of attending a university" regardless of how well they prepare.
Ana Guevara, 20, a native of Nicaragua, often has to limit her class load to one or two per semesters because of the huge cost.
"I'm very happy now. I will be able to afford more classes and finish sooner," she said. "It's an amazing feeling to know we have an equal education and don't have to pay more for it."
FAU now has about 100 undocumented students who could benefit from the new policy. Palm Beach State has 112 while Broward College has 110.
"But there are probably many potential students who have not attended because they can't afford it," said Grace Truman, spokeswoman at Palm Beach State. "It's hard to quantify people who do not come."
"We could absorb a few hundred students. We'd actually welcome that. Our enrollment is down a tad for this fall," said Gary Perry, provost at FAU. "I don't think there's going to be a huge impact unless I'm totally unaware of the number of immigrant students in southeast Florida."
State colleges often deal with big shifts in enrollment, as the numbers go up during tough economic times and down when the economy is good and more people are working.
"Broward College has a long history of successfully adapting to significant changes in enrollment," said Marielena DeSanctis, vice president for student affairs and enrollment. "With the passage of the new law, we welcome the opportunity to continue to serve the community."
The law should also be good for the workforce, said Mason Jackson, president of CareerSource Broward, a job placement service.
"These youngsters came here with their parents trying to find the American dream," he said. "In a knowledge-based economy, our economic prosperity depends on a well-educated workforce."
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