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Court Agrees With Con Lit Clinic in Finding That State Must Use Residency of Student, Not Parents, to Determine Financial Aid Eligibility

August 13, 2012 – 

The New Jersey Appellate Division has ruled in favor of a young American citizen denied state financial aid based on the immigration status of her mother rather than her own residency. The court’s ruling stated that the student, A.Z., was in fact eligible for a Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) from the state and that the state’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESSA) misapplied the law when it denied her application. The decision can be found here.

The Rutgers School of Law–Newark Constitutional Litigation Clinic and the ACLU-NJ filed an appeal last year on behalf of A.Z., who was a high school senior when HESAA denied her TAG grant application because her “parents are not legal New Jersey residents.”

“This is an important ruling for children of immigrants throughout New Jersey,” said the Constitutional Litigation Clinic’s Ronald K. Chen, who argued the case of behalf of A.Z. “For the purpose of state financial aid, American citizens cannot be punished for the immigration status of their parents.” Vice Dean Chen added that “HESAA clearly misapplied the law and the court admonished the agency in response.”

A.Z. met the two requirements to apply for state aid from HESAA: demonstration of financial need and New Jersey residency. A.Z. was born in the United States and has lived in New Jersey with her mother, a single parent, since 1997. According to the Appellate Division, HESAA violated state statute by considering her “residency” to be that of her mother’s country of origin, rather than New Jersey.

“We conclude,” the court stated, “that irrebuttably assigning to a dependent student the domicile of his or her parent alters the plain meaning of the statute and is contrary to the underlying legislative intent.” The court took the unusual step of voiding an agency regulation as beyond the agency’s authority, declaring: “To the extent the agency’s 2005 regulation irrebuttably established that a dependent student’s legal residence or domicile is that of his or her parents, it is void.”

As for the agency’s contention that the beneficiary of the tuition aid would be A.Z.’s mother, not A.Z., the court stated HESAA’s argument runs afoul of the meaning of the TAG statute, which expressly provides for the award of the financial aid to the student. “Not every parent’s support invariably extends to higher education,” the ruling stated. “The TAG grant is a need-based grant, and, in the case of a dependent student, is determined in light of the limited ability to pay of the dependent student’s parents.”

As a result of her denied financial aid application, A.Z. took on a full-time job to support herself and attended community college rather than one of the several four-year colleges to which she was admitted.

“A hardworking U.S.-born citizen at the top of her class should be the future of the American dream, not have her dreams stunted by discrimination,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Alexander Shalom. “This doesn’t erase the hardships A.Z. has endured for the past year, but it does guarantee that students will not have to watch their horizons narrow before their eyes.”