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Ricardo Heredia has been plugging away at his bachelor’s degree for more than four years, taking breaks to work construction so he can earn enough to pay for another quarter of tuition.

But the 23-year-old business-administration major, whose family moved to the U.S. when he was 8 months old, hopes his fortunes will change this fall when Washington’s financial aid program for college students is extended to those who were illegally brought to the United States as children.

The Real Hope Act, signed into law last week by Gov. Jay Inslee, will extend State Need Grant (SNG) money to undocumented students like Heredia who are studying in the state’s public two- and four-year colleges, as well as many private in-state colleges. Seventy colleges and universities in all are part of the program.

Figuring out which of these students qualifies for grant aid — which does not need to be paid back — is a challenge, because the federal aid form known as the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, won’t work if the applicant is not a citizen. College financial-aid officers use FAFSA data to determine whether students are eligible for SNG.

So Washington will contract with a website developer to create a special financial-aid form to determine which students are eligible, said Rachelle Sharpe, director of student financial assistance for the Washington Student Achievement Council.

The 15-month contract is for an estimated $100,000, and the website is expected to be up and running in April.

Heredia, a student at the University of Washington, Bothell, is going to take spring and summer quarter off to bank his construction-job money, then re-enter college in the fall. He’ll apply for SNG money, and hopes he’ll qualify for enough aid to finally be able to study full time.

Alejandra Perez, a UW-Bothell sophomore, is also hoping she’ll qualify. “I’m going to be checking on a daily basis, so the first time it (the website) comes out, I’m applying that day,” said Perez, 19, who has been living in the U.S. since she was 12 and graduated from Cleveland High School.

News about the new financial-aid website is available at

When it passed the Real Hope Act, the Legislature boosted the amount of money available for SNG by $5 million, to $308 million for the 2014-15 academic year, to help pay for the additional students who will qualify. But the extra $5 million isn’t earmarked specifically for undocumented immigrants, Sharpe said. The money will be distributed to colleges based on need, with each institution deciding who gets it.

In the meantime, undocumented students who hope to tap into the aid should be applying for college now and completing any financial-aid paperwork that individual institutions require, Sharpe said.

Although fall 2014 freshman application deadlines have passed at most of the state’s selective schools — including the UW and private schools like Seattle University — many other state schools and all community colleges are still taking applications.

Sharpe also encourages all students — legal residents or not — to use the state’s scholarship-finding database,, to find private scholarship money. Some scholarships accept undocumented immigrants, and others are set up specifically for them.

Perez and Heredia both have private scholarships to help pay for college, although not enough to pay the full bill. Perez said that finding private scholarship money is time-consuming — she estimates she spent 100 hours last year writing essays and searching for scholarship dollars.

She’s also helped build an exhaustive list of scholarship opportunities for undocumented students, which is published on the UW-Bothell website.

State officials already know there’s not enough SNG money to go to everyone who qualifies. This year, about 74,000 are receiving it, but another 32,000 students who were eligible received no money.

The additional $5 million will cover about 1,100 more students, Sharpe said.

At four-year colleges and universities, the money is distributed on a sliding scale — students with the most need receive the largest sum, Sharpe said. But for community and technical colleges, which have a wide window of time to submit an application, the money is usually awarded to those students with need who meet a priority deadline.

“When you are a rolling-admission institution, it’s difficult to turn a student away today because you might have a lower-income student later,” Sharpe said.

Heredia is one of hundreds of students who helped lobby for passage of the bill. He said his parents sacrificed a great deal for him by crossing the border to seek a better life. His mother has not seen her parents for 23 years.

“I’ll never be able to pay them back, but the closest thing I can come to that is getting an education,” he said.

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