Should Illegal Immigrants Qualify for In-State Tuition?

Should Illegal Immigrants Qualify for In-State Tuition?
Hot on the heels of the Dream Act, many states are debating whether illegal immigrants should qualify for in-state tuition rates at community colleges. Learn about the current law, Supreme Court rulings, and what several states have to say.

As the immigration debate rages on, a new aspect of the controversy has come to the forefront: should illegal immigrants qualify for in-state tuition at state colleges? A federal law on the books prohibits the practice, but many states have overridden that law to allow those who have grown up in their public schools to move on to higher education after graduation. Others oppose the idea of allowing people who are in the country illegally – and as such, are disqualified from becoming a member of the workforce – to reap benefits not available to legal residents of the country. We will take a look at both sides of the debate, and how some states are deciding to handle the issue of illegal immigration in their own education systems.

What the Law Says

A federal law passed in 1996 prohibits illegal immigrants from paying in-state tuition at public institutions of higher education, according to an article at FinAid. The law reads:

"An alien who is not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible on the basis of residence within a state for any postsecondary education benefit unless a citizen or national of the United States is eligible for such a benefit (in no less an amount, duration and scope) without regard to whether the citizen or national is such a resident."

Since the federal law was passed, several states have passed state laws allowing in-state tuition to illegal immigrants residing in those states, if the student has attended high school there for three or more years. Many of the state laws try to get around the federal legislation by simply not asking students whether they are in the country legally. However, there is some question as to whether these states are legally allowed to override federal law in this manner.

While there are federal allowances that give states the freedom to provide some benefits to illegal aliens under state law, there is debate over whether this subsection encompasses in-state tuition rules. Some law experts believe that the limiting reference of the specific subsection does not include in-state tuition laws, meaning that states are not allowed to override federal law in this area.

This video describes the process of applying as an undocumented student.

Those in Favor

Proponents of allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates cite many of the same arguments utilized in favor of the Dream Act. According to a piece published in the Hartford Courant, many illegal immigrants were brought to the United States when they were infants or young children by their parents, and they should not be made to suffer under America's immigration policies. Many of these students know no other home than America, and for all intents and purposes, could be considered American.

If given the opportunity to attend school affordably these students could become very productive, positive parts of the American economy - and certainly at a higher probability than turning them away and forcing them into the underground economy.

Those Opposed

There are many who are against allowing illegal immigrants to receive the benefits of in-state tuition rates. An article at the American Resistance lists some of the following reasons for opposing such a practice:

  • Students attending college are nearly adults, and they should be held to the same levels of accountability that other adults are held to in this country. This specifically refutes the idea that children of illegal immigrants should not be punished for their parents' choices and should, therefore, be allowed the same benefits as legal residents of this country.
  • As discussed above, some believe that state law allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition is a clear violation of federal law.
  • Because college entrance slots are limited, this allowance could provide college access to illegal immigrants at the risk of excluding students who are in this country legally.
  • If illegal immigrants receive in-state tuition rates, they are granted benefits not provided to legal residents of other states around the country.

While there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides of this coin, many states are grappling with which choice will provide the greatest benefits to their communities. We have examples from three different states that are currently working through the tuition quandary.

In this video, a community college official defends admitting undocumented students.

Bill Working its Way through Maryland

In Maryland, the state Senate recently passed a bill to allow some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates. Immigrants who have lived and worked in the state of Maryland for three years or more could qualify for the lower rates. The bill now goes to the House of Delegates for approval. Sen. Victor Ramirez, the bill sponsor, told the Washington Post National, "It's about education. It's not about immigration."

According to an article in the Baltimore Sun, the move could cost the state about $800,000 next year, but the bill could grow to as much as $3.5 million by 2016.

California State Supreme Court Weighs in

In California, the state law that allows some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates was upheld by the state's Supreme Court, according to a report in the LA Times. The court determined that California's state law was not in violation of the federal law prohibiting such a benefit. California law states that in order to qualify for in-state tuition rates, students must attend high school in California for at least three years and graduate.

Bill Up for Debate in Connecticut

In Connecticut, the debate is still going to determine whether illegal immigrants would be allowed to pay in-state tuition rates in that state. At a recent legislative hearing, the Hartford Courant reports that hundreds attended to find out what the state would decide on the issue. Backers of the bill are in hopes their legislation will pass this year under Governor Dannel P. Malloy. The bill was vetoed by Governor M. Jodi Rell in 2007. At this point. the Senate appears split on whether it will pass the bill and send it to the governor's desk in the near future.

With the federal version defeated, the state governments now continue to debate the future of local versions of the Dream Act and rights conferred to undocumented students. However, as the debate continues, one fact remains: undocumented students continue to graduate every June from high school, and many are looking to community colleges to continue their education and help jumpstart a productive career. The question now remains: at what price?

Questions? Contact us on Facebook @communitycollegereview.

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