Alex Gonzalez has long known that he wants to finish his college career at the University of Minnesota. But despite living in the Twin Cities area since he was 6 years old, he didn't expect to pay the U’s in-state price. That’s because Gonzalez, now 18, was born in Mexico.

With his mom by his side, he and dozens of other undocumented immigrants gathered Monday to learn how, exactly, they might tap a new state law meant to help them pay for tuition.

“It’s a really big help,” Gonzalez said, clutching a folder of work sheets.

A new Minnesota law passed last session makes undocumented students eligible for state grants, in-state tuition and private scholarships. A handful of experts were at Augsburg College on Monday to explain the new rules to students who may qualify — undocumented immigrants who attended a Minnesota high school for at least three years and graduated or earned a G.E.D.

Welcome, the first hourlong presentation seemed to say, to the occasionally bewildering world of financial aid.

It’s a process made more complicated by the students’ undocumented status. What if, one young man asked, your parents live in another country?

“Don’t give up,” Ginny Dodds, with the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, told the group more than once. “If you have a question, give us a call.”

Federal grants off limits

While federal grants remain off-limits, advocates hope state efforts will not only help illegal immigrants pay for college — but encourage them to apply in the first place.

“There has never been a bigger incentive to stay in school, graduate and go on to college than now,” said Juve Meza, a volunteer with the Citizens League who helped organize Monday’s event, the first in a series.

When coupled with a new federal program that makes it easier for young people, brought to the United States as children, to work legally here, the new state law will mean much greater affordability, advocates say.

Cristian Baca, 19, took a semester off at Augsburg College to figure out his finances and apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which will allow him to work legally in the country for at least two years.

He doesn’t expect a big state grant but “any help is just great,” he said, especially when combined with wages from a part-time job.

Officials expect between 500 to 600 undocumented students to apply for the State Grant Program, Minnesota’s main financial aid program. In the week since the application went live, more than 50 students have completed one. During the series of workshops, students work through the new state form with helpers at their sides.

“We absolutely want you to go” to college, Larry Pogemiller, commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, told the more than 100 students gathered in the campus chapel. “And this is the first step in helping you pay for it.”

Since the so-called “Minnesota Dream Act” was signed into law in May, his office has been scrambling to set up a financial aid process separate from the federal program, for which noncitizens don’t qualify. A 19-page guide walks students through each step of the new application.

The law requires male students to register for Selective Service and all students to apply for lawful immigrant status once and if that federal process exists. In last session’s legislative debates over the bill, some Republicans argued that state lawmakers should wait on this law until federal immigration reform is completed.

Only 4 states have such a law

In passing the legislation, Minnesota became one of just four states to offer undocumented students financial aid.

The formula that determines the size of a student’s state grant is built around the federal Pell Grant Program. So the Pell grant amount is subtracted — even in the case of illegal immigrants, who are not eligible for federal aid.

That formula, written into law, might be the answer to the question: “Why am I getting such a small grant?” Dodds said. “We may look at changing the law in the future.”

During a round-table talk Monday with Pogemiller, a handful of students told him about being unsure, as high schoolers, whether to tell their counselors that they were undocumented, working multiple jobs to pay tuition bills and taking semesters off to save up. Several said they hope this law means the application process is easier for their younger siblings.

Oscar Martinez, a rising sophomore at Augsburg studying chemistry, said that he’s “envious” of his little sister, who is 17 years old and also undocumented. “But it’s a good envious,” he said. “I’m happy that she won’t have to experience all the hardship.”

Pogemiller stressed that he and others will push to improve the grant formula so that it doesn’t penalize students who can’t apply for federal grants.

“I’m so sorry that it’s not perfect yet,” he told them, turning to Martinez. “It’ll get there, hopefully for your sister, for your siblings.”