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When state lawmakers passed a law this year granting undocumented students the right to tap into state financial aid for college, they had no idea how many might apply.

That picture is starting to become clearer.

To date, more than 1,600 undocumented college students have filled out a new state financial-aid form that is the first step in qualifying for the State Need Grant, Washington’s grant money to help pay for college, for the 2014-15 academic year.

On Friday, a coalition of the state’s four-year universities and community colleges came together on the University of Washington campus to discuss ways to help undocumented students get college degrees.

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The coalition has worked together with the aid of a three-year, $100,000 grant from the nonprofit College Spark Washington to assist undocumented students trying to earn degrees.

The issue of immigration reform itself is highly controversial nationwide, yet the Real Hope Act — the Legislature’s bill to extend state financial aid to undocumented students — won a strong bipartisan victory early this year, becoming the first law to pass during the session. Supporters characterized it as a vote to take care of Washington students, and not a bill about immigration.

Research shows that undocumented students are three times more likely than other students to leave school without finishing, and the primary reason is finances rather than academics, said Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor at Harvard University who formerly taught at the UW. Gonzales spoke at the coalition summit Friday.

The State Need Grant money for undocumented students is expected to be supplemented on some campuses with private or institutional money. The UW plans to make Real Hope students eligible for Husky Promise, a program that uses university funds to pay the full tuition cost, said Sheila Edwards Lange, vice president of minority affairs and vice provost of diversity. Currently, Husky Promise reaches about a third of Washington undergraduates.

So far, 178 undocumented UW students have completed the new state paperwork to get State Need Grant money. Philip Ballinger, associate vice provost for enrollment, predicted that the number will go up as word gets out.

At Washington State University, about 145 students have applied for the funding, said John Fraire, vice president of student affairs and enrollment. WSU will also work with undocumented students to help them find additional scholarship money to pay for college, he said.

The State Need Grant program has been underfunded for the past few years, and many qualified students who applied for financial aid did not get it. When it passed the Real Hope Act, the Legislature provided additional funding to the State Need Grant program to accommodate about 1,250 students.

Some legislators argued that expanding the pool to include undocumented students would just make it harder for all students to get financial-aid money.

Last year, when undocumented students were not eligible, more than 100,000 students qualified for State Need Grant funds, but only about 70 percent received grant money.

One concern among advocates for undocumented students is that even when they graduate from college, their job prospects are uncertain. The federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is an executive order signed by President Obama that grants a two-year renewable work permit for people who arrived in the U.S. as children, and undocumented college graduates have used that law to get jobs after leaving school.

But no one knows if a shift in the political winds or a new president might put an end to DACA.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong

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