This will be the first year that illegal immigrant Maria Praeli can consider going to college fulltime.
She and her family had feared that the cost would be more than they could afford. But the 18-year-old high school student can now qualify for in-state tuition at Connecticut's public universities under a law that took effect last week.
The law can reduce tuition costs by as much as $17,000 annually for undocumented students such as Praeli, a rising senior at New Milford High School who is plans to apply to state schools.
"It gives me something to work for," said Praeli, a native of Peru who was taken to the United States when she was 5 years old. "It's easier to see your future."
Connecticut is now among 12 states, including New York and Illinois, that grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who are working toward legal status. Advocates also have been pushing for a federal law providing a path to legalization for qualified illegal immigrant students and other young adults, but the federal legislation known as the DREAM Act has failed repeatedly in Washington.
At a ceremonial bill signing on Thursday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, touted the law as a way to help Connecticut's youth prepare for jobs in a fast-changing economy.
"These are children who live in Connecticut, contribute to our economy and are part of the fabric of our state. This bill isn't controversial, it's common sense," Malloy said.
Fewer than 50 illegal immigrants are expected to take advantage of the new law immediately, with the University of Connecticut expecting less than 10 for its next term. But advocates say that number could rise to 250 across Connecticut within the year as enrollment increases at community colleges in particular.
Lawmakers who supported the tuition change say it makes sense to give students who were raised as Americans a chance to succeed. Opponents say it is unfair to legal residents who could lose a spot in the in-state pool because of the new law.
The law requires the undocumented students to attend four years of high school in Connecticut and then file a statement with their college or university saying they will apply for legal residency when eligible to do so. Currently, if an illegal resident applies for lawful status they are subject to deportation.
The tuition savings can make a huge difference for Praeli and other immigrant students. In-state tuition at the University of Connecticut is $8,256, compared with the $25,152 out-of-state tuition rate that illegal immigrants have had to pay.
Praeli said she knew she couldn't have afforded to go to college full time like most of her high school friends. She likely would have had to work a full-time job and go to school part time, or not at all. It was a subject she avoided talking about.
"It was kind of like a reality that I didn't want to accept. I considered the whole thing unfair," Praeli said. She said she does not have a first-choice school and has not decided what she wants to study.
While a college education may be more affordable for students like Praeli, sizeable barriers remain. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for most financial aid, and once they get a degree they can't legally work in the U.S. without being a registered citizen.
John Skrentny, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego, said laws such as the Connecticut measure raise as many problems as they solve.
"On the one hand these offer some opportunities for some of these kids, on the other hand it doesn't prepare them for a job they can legally work at," Skrentny said. "States can do a lot to help out illegal immigrants, but the one thing they cannot do is make them legal."
Mariano Cardoso, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who attended community college in Hartford, said the law will help people in similar situations, but he agreed it can only do so much.
"It's a lot of help, but it's not really enough for any student that's undocumented," Cardoso said. "For someone who cannot have a job, it's not really enough," he said.