Minnesota would become one of the most generous states in the nation toward undocumented college students under a plan approved Wednesday by the state Senate.

The new measure, which Gov. Mark Dayton pledged to sign if it wins legislative approval, would allow undocumented students to become eligible for state financial aid, in-state tuition and private scholarships.

It would make Minnesota one of 16 states to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students and one of just four to offer them financial aid.

Fewer than 500 students are expected to take advantage of the program each year, but proponents said it would have far greater symbolic impact.

“This is really important for a small number of students, but it’s very symbolic for a lot of immigrant students who dare to dream that they, too, can get a college education,” said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul.

The bill sponsored by Pappas, known as the “Path to Prosperity Act,” has been debated for more than a decade but has gained new vigor recently as immigration reform efforts build momentum at the state and federal level.

The Senate action came as hundreds of demonstrators braved the rain outside the Capitol on Wednesday, part of a national day of immigration reform rallies.

Both the Obama administration and Republican leaders have said they have heard the calls of the business community, labor unions and civil rights groups to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.

“This is a national and local trend all over the country,” said state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, a supporter of the bill.

The Minnesota bill would allow such students to receive money from the State Grant, Minnesota’s main public student aid program. Students could also receive private scholarship money raised by public colleges.

They would have to attend a Minnesota high school for at least three years and graduate to be eligible, and pledge to apply to change their immigration status as soon as they are eligible.

State higher-education officials have testified it will likely be the equivalent of adding two students at every college in the state, or an estimated $539,000 a year, roughly 0.03 percent of the State Grant budget.

Chamber of Commerce support

The bill received support from the business community, including the Chamber of Commerce, which saw it as a way of boosting the skills of its workforce.

The bill passed 41-23 with a handful of Republican supporters. State Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, argued that the state should wait to pass such measures until federal immigration reform is completed, including paths to citizenship.

“While these students might be able to attend college and they might be able to graduate, we also know they will not be able to work here,” she said. “That’s why we should wait for the federal government to act. Then we will encourage them to attend our colleges and welcome them in our workplaces.”

The bill never received a complete hearing in the Minnesota House, but Senate supporters hope to hammer out a deal later in a conference committee.

‘Today … improvement’

Regardless, it was a good day for Nestor Gomez. Carrying a U.S. flag and wearing a Minnesota Twins cap, the 19-year-old was in front of the Capitol for the rally.

Gomez, who calls himself a “dreamer,” was brought to this country illegally from Mexico by his parents when he was 10. He’s now a sophomore at North Hennepin Technical College and wants to attend the University of Minnesota to study bio-engineering.

Because he is undocumented, he doesn’t qualify for financial aid. He has three younger siblings, all born in the United States, who qualify for financial help.

“A lot of students, community members, have been active for almost a decade and nothing. Until today we actually see some improvement,” he said. “I love this society. You can’t really take me away from this. It is the place where I’m from.”