KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

This DACA Recipient Can't Afford College In Arizona, So He's Going To Harvard

Darian Benitez Sanchez’s bedroom was a mess last week as he was getting ready to go off to college. Clothes were laid out on his floor and bed waiting to be put away into suitcases. 

So far, he had selected some essentials: professional attire, T-shirts, loungewear and lots of sweaters because the 18-year-old — who's accustomed to the desert heat — is expecting to be "really, really cold" at his new school, Harvard University, where he will be majoring in political science.  

On Wednesday, the Brophy College Preparatory graduate starts his first day as a student at Harvard — more than 2,000 miles away from Arizona where he and his family have lived for the past 14 years since they left their home state of Guanajuato in central Mexico to escape poverty.

“It scares us, it really does scare us," he said during an Aug. 25 interview at his Phoenix home. 

It means he has to leave his family behind, a choice that's difficult for Benitez Sanchez since his application to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily shields certain undocumented youth from deportation, was recently approved — but other family members don't have that same protection. 

“It brings that guilt like, ‘No, I should be with my family right now. Like, I should be protecting and looking out for my family. Like, why? What gives me the right to leave?'" He said.

Harvard wasn’t always Benitez Sanchez’s plan. He had initially wanted to go to Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University and even toured the campus as a high school student.  

“It was incredible," he said. "I told my parents, ‘Wow, like, it’s right here. What we want is right here. It’s a 25-minute drive. That’s amazing.'"

But Benitez Sanchez couldn't afford the Arizona school because of a 2006 law passed by 71% of Arizona voters.

Under Proposition 300, undocumented students, including DACA recipients like him, don’t qualify for in-state tuition rates. Because of this, these students pay 50% more for tuition at Arizona public universities. That would be an additional $5,000 per year for a full-time undocumented student at ASU, where the annual in-state tuition rate  is nearly $11,000. 

At  Maricopa County Community College District institutions, undocumented students and DACA recipients pay $326 per credit hour, while other Arizona students pay $85 per credit. Tuition differences are similar at  Pima Community College.

Proposition 300 also bars these students from receiving the state aid that other students receive to make college more accessible. 

“A lot of undocumented, DACA families are not well off, so those several thousand dollars are just an insurmountable barrier," said José Patiño with Aliento, an Arizona-based organization that serves immigrant families.

Over the years, he’s seen many students like Benitez Sanchez who have essentially been forced to leave Arizona to chase their college dreams. In Benitez Sanchez's case, Harvard offered him the financial aid necessary to cover his full cost of attendance.

“It's sad for the state, because the state invests in these students from K-12 and then, at the end it’s more affordable to go out of state to a private institution because they are able to provide them with the resources to be able to attend college," Patiño said. 

The state Legislature addressed the issue this year and in May, a bipartisan group of lawmakers approved a ballot referral that will ask Arizona voters in the 2022 election whether they want these students to qualify for in-state tuition and state aid.

“We have companies relocating here and new companies starting here, but without an increasing number of college graduates to sustain those companies these trends cannot hold," Republican state Rep. Michelle Udall said during the House vote on the measure. "We need more college-educated youth to become tomorrow’s teachers, health care workers, lawyers, engineers and a host of other occupations." 

Fellow Republican Rep. Bret Roberts said he opposed the measure because he thinks it will draw in immigrants. 

“Make no mistake: This will exacerbate the border problem and to not acknowledge that this will be an incentive is ludicrous," He said.  

At least  one study doesn’t support Roberts’s claim. But there are multiple studies that show the benefits of these such policies. That includes higher high school graduation rates among undocumented students, as well as an increase of college enrollment among this population. 

"That's a logical outcome of what we would expect if we make college more affordable to more people," said Bradley Custer, a senior policy analyst for higher education at the Center of American Progress, a progressive think-tank. 

In addition, Custer said studies on college graduates in general show that college attainment increases a person’s earnings over their lifetime, and higher earnings means they pay more in state taxes. 

Aliento is working on a campaign to get voters to support bringing these benefits to Arizona, Patiño said. 

“Young people can live without shelter, without food for some time, but what we cannot live without hope, and that education provides that hope — hope for a better future, hope for opportunities and all we want to make sure is that students have that hope," he said. 

Until then, going to Harvard is the best option for Benitez Sanchez, even if it comes at a personal cost to him and his family, but he hopes Arizonans will decide to help the high school students after him. 

"If you have this goal of making sure Arizona's workforce becomes more educated, if you have this goal for Arizona as a whole to just climb the scale of education if you want to better that, then you have to stop prohibiting students from attending college. It's simple as that," he said. 

He hopes to return to Arizona after he graduates from Harvard and give back to the state he calls home. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify the financial assistance offered to Darian Benitez Sanchez by Harvard University.

More Stories From KJZZ

Rocio Hernandez was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2020 to 2022.