Immigrants and Community College Tuition Costs: What's Fair?

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Immigrants and Community College Tuition Costs: What's Fair?
New developments in Arizona and Florida are forcing schools and lawmakers to examine the issue of tuition rates for students with parents who are in the U.S. illegally.

Arizona is fighting an immigration battle that has become more than a little murky in recent months. With undocumented immigrants now able to apply for deferred action to continue to work legally in the U.S., the question has naturally turned to the issue of in-state tuition. Recently, those immigrants were required to pay out-of-state tuition rates, even at the schools in the states where they lived and worked. However, the introduction of the deferred action program has some schools rethinking their tuition policies and some changing the rules on what undocumented immigrants must pay to get a college education in the U.S.

This video explains DACA and what it is.

New Action Plan Overridden by Arizona Governor

In August, shortly after President Obama’s new deferred action program was introduced, the governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, made her announcement. Governor Brewer signed an executive order for her state that mandated state agencies not to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants in Arizona, even if they received deferred action to work in the United States. The order also stated that these individuals were to be denied all public benefits by the state, according to a report in the Tucson Citizen.

“As the [DHS – Department of Homeland Security] has said repeatedly…these individuals do not have lawful status,” Matthew Benson, a spokesman for the governor’s office, told the Citizen. “They are able to remain in the country and not be deported and not be prosecuted, but they do not have lawful status.”

While Brewer’s order lists several specific public programs like unemployment benefits and the state’s children’s health insurance program, it does not directly address the issue of tuition rates. Maricopa Community College initially said it would offer undocumented immigrants deferred action in-state tuition rates and would have to reconsider that policy in light of Brewer’s order. The school initially favored in-state tuition rates because federal work authorization cards – like the ones distributed under the deferred action program – were considered legal documentation for obtaining in-state tuition.

This video describes the legal moves the State of Arizona is taking against DACA participants.

Order Weighed, Policies Announced

One month after Brewer’s executive order was issued, Maricopa Community College announced that it would stick with its initial decision to offer students in the deferred action program in-state tuition rates. AZCentral reports that the decision was made after a legal review determined that work authorization cards met legal residency requirements to gain in-state tuition rates. A Maricopa County Community College District spokesman told the East Valley Tribune that work permits have always been used to obtain in-state tuition, and now they will be allowed for future students as well.

“This is one of the greatest days of our lives because we have been fighting for our education and it is an important component of our advocacy for young immigrants’ rights,” Dulce Matuz, chairwoman for the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, was reported as saying at the East Valley Tribune. “Also because we are taxpayers in Arizona and this is an acknowledgment of our monetary contributions. It is also great news for the future of our state, for the prosperity of Arizona, because we need a better-educated workforce to be able to attract good employers for Arizona and create businesses.”

Carmen Conejo, also of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, told AZ Central that when Proposition 300 took effect, around 8,000 students dropped out of the Maricopa Community College system because they could not afford the higher non-resident tuition. Proposition 300, enacted in 2007, required students to demonstrate lawful immigration status to receive in-state tuition rates at any institution of higher education in Arizona. In-state tuition is $76 per credit hour, while non-resident tuition costs $317.

Other Colleges Soon to Follow?

The Maricopa County Community College District, which currently boasts ten different campuses, is the only one to announce such a policy. However, that could change in the future, as other schools in the state are also reviewing their tuition policies to determine whether students with authorized work permits should be paying lower tuition rates. Think Progress reports that Arizona State and the University of Arizona, which both currently have work permits on their list of legal documents to receive in-state tuition, are also reviewing their policies.

Those two schools are currently home to around 90,000 students, so the decision made by these institutions could have a significant impact on the cost of higher education in Arizona overall. It is also estimated that around 80,000 Arizona residents alone could qualify for the deferred action program. More than 70,000 have already applied for deferred action status, and the federal government has granted some of those requests. The Arizona Dream Act Coalition expects many of the 8,000 students who left school when tuition got too expensive to re-enroll under the new rules for Maricopa community colleges. Others who never enrolled due to the cost of tuition might also become students on Maricopa campuses in light of the new policy.

This video reports on how students who are participants in DACA are paying increased tuition.

Whether the decisions made by Arizona will impact the rest of the country remains to be seen. Currently, only 12 states allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition. Three states, including Arizona, have laws expressly prohibiting the practice. With little protocol to draw from, it is now anyone’s guess how the immigration fight in Arizona could impact undocumented immigrants – and their ability to pursue higher education – across the nation.

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