Stateline Story

States Weigh Tuition Breaks for Illegal Immigrants

State legislation plays an important role in determining who goes to college - and at what price. For the tens of thousands of undocumented students living in the United States, the equation is complex.

While many of these individuals have lived in this country most of their lives, they often are unable to afford college because they can't prove residency. Out-of-state or international tuition typically two to three times the in-state price is out of reach.

In the last two years, about half of the state legislatures have begun to tackle the issue, most by introducing bills to allow undocumented students in-state tuition at state colleges and universities, but a few by introducing bills to prohibit it, legislative analysts said.

"You are definitely seeing more states addressing the issue. The trend spins off the fact that there's a growing immigrant population, and the political climate is such that immigration issues are of importance," Leo Muoz, a policy associate at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), told Stateline.org.

AASCU represents more than 430 public colleges and universities.

The passage of laws in California and Texas in 2001 granting undocumented students in-state tuition have inspired other state leaders to consider similar legislation, Muoz said.

Within the last two years, bills have been introduced in 23 states to allow undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition, AASCU records show.

The bills have become law in seven of those states California, Texas, Illinois, New York, Oklahoma, Utah and Washington, according to an AASCU report, "Access for All?"

Lawmakers in four states - Alaska, Arizona, North Carolina and Virginia introduced bills prohibiting undocumented students from receiving resident tuition. Only the Virginia Legislature acted, and Gov. Mark Warner (D) vetoed that bill.

"Our nation was built by immigrants, and we should not take action that will prevent deserving students from living the American Dream," Warner said in a May 1 statement.

The tuition debate represents one facet of a larger controversy about illegal immigration. Lawmakers in a number of states, including Arizona, California and Texas, have also wrestled with such issues as whether to accept non-U.S. identification documents (such as Mexican ID cards) and whether to grant drivers' licenses to undocumented immigrants.

"Even if they don't have papers, they are residents of these states," said Tiana Murillo, a policy assistant at the National Immigration Law Center, a group promoting immigrants' rights. "I think there's a fundamental value Americans share that children shouldn't be punished for things that are beyond their control."

Between 50,000 and 65,000 undocumented students who have lived in the United States at least five years finish high school each year, according to data from the Urban Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan research organization.

Those in favor of in-state tuition proposals say educating these undocumented students could reduce the prospect of later reliance on public assistance. Opponents contend giving in-state tuition access encourages and rewards illegal immigration.

"This isn't a question of whether illegal aliens can go to state universities. This is a question of whether they are subsidized by taxpayers," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit organization that advocates limits on immigration.

At a time when tight budgets are the norm, state officials are trying to determine the economic impact of offering undocumented students in-state tuition. It's hard to pinpoint the cost since no one knows precisely how many undocumented students are enrolling, the AASCU's Muoz said.

"Education for All," a study by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago released in March 2003, assessed the financial implications of giving Chicago's undocumented students in-state tuition.

It estimated that the annual cost to the state would be between $3.3 million and $11.6 million.

Estimates of how much it would cost to give Texas undocumented students in-state tuition ranged from $17.74 million based on the legislation in its formative stages to practically nothing. The final fiscal analysis just before the bill became law predicted no negative impact to the state's revenue.

"We calculated what the fiscal implications would be based on various language," Patrick Francis, the higher education team manager for Texas' Legislative Budget Board, said. He explained that the definition of who qualifies contained in the final bill was narrower than what had been initially proposed.

The Texas law grants in-state tuition to illegal aliens who graduate from a Texas high school after living in the state for at least three years.

Although any student, regardless of immigrant status, can enroll in elementary or secondary school, a 1996 federal law previously stymied state efforts to give undocumented students in-state college tuition, Muoz said. This law prohibits public universities from giving undocumented students in-state tuition unless all legal out-of-state residents receive those rates.

State laws have attempted to skirt this policy by not requiring a social security number as part of admissions criteria, according to the "Education for All" study.

There have been efforts at the federal level to repeal repeal the 1996 legislation, but none have succeeded so far. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., during the 107th Congress, would allow certain immigrants who meet age, scholastic, residential and character requirements to adjust their status to that of legal permanent residents and nullify the resident tuition restrictions in the 1996 law. The DREAM Act has not been re-introduced during this congressional session.

"[Lack of in-state access] has been a serious problem since 1996," said Jenni Engebretsen, Durbin's Washington press secretary. "It's something Sen. Durbin felt was an urgent problem in the last Congress and continues to be an urgent problem today."