Advancing the Debate: Why Give Illegal Immigrants In-State Tuition?

Oregon may become the next state to grant in-state tuition to young illegal immigrants. We review the arguments for and against state tuition equity laws, which 13 states currently have and at least a dozen are considering.
by | February 25, 2013
 

To attend the University of Oregon, young illegal immigrants must pay an average of $114,612 for four years of tuition. That’s slightly more than three times the tuition required of legal in-state residents. A proposal to level that difference passed the state House Feb. 22 and is primed for a first reading in Oregon's Senate.

As Congress debates the loftier and thornier issues of citizenship and border security, state legislatures across the country have taken up tuition equity laws as their own modest immigration reform.

So far, 13 states grant in-state tuition to local high school graduates -- with varying conditions -- regardless of citizenship status. Others might soon join the pack: Besides Oregon, lawmakers introduced tuition equity bills this year in Arizona, California, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Virginia, according to an analysis from the National Immigration Law Center.

Oregon lawmakers considered a tuition equity proposal in 2003 and 2011, both of which passed out of the state Senate, but died without a hearing in the House. With House approval and Gov. John Kitzhaber already voicing his support, the proposal’s prospects of becoming law appear more promising this year.

“The law shouldn't punish people for the actions of others,” writes The Oregonian editorial board. “Charging [young illegal immigrants] out-of-state tuition -- pushing a college education out of the reach of many -- is cruel.”

Gabriella Morrongiello, a member of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom and an out-of-state college student at Oregon State University, urged lawmakers not to pass a tuition equity law because it would be unfair to citizens from other states. She called the proposal “confiscation and redistribution” because she anticipates enrollment will sky rocket and costs will be shifted to families like hers through increased tuition and fees.

Some opponents of tuition equity laws warn that offering such state benefits sends the wrong message to prospective illegal immigrants not yet residing in Oregon.

"Accommodations to illegal aliens such as driver licenses, in-state tuition, etc. legitimize illegal immigration and encourage more of it," writes Jim Ludwick, a founder of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, in the Portland Tribune.

Nonpartisan analysts within the Legislative Fiscal Office in Salem, Ore., researched the impacts of similar laws in other states and concluded that “approximately 38 students would take advantage of this opportunity in the 2013-15 biennium and 80 students would use the program in 2015-17.” As with enrollment, legislative researchers in Oregon and Connecticut anticipated no significant impact in terms of added costs because of the prospective laws in their states.

Tanya Broder, a senior attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, said few immigrants take advantage of tuition equity laws in the first few years because they don’t know about the change in law. “It takes time for the message to get out,” she said. But the long-term impact might remain relatively small, Broder said, because even with an in-state rate, many illegal immigrants can’t afford college without financial aid -- something that is unavailable at the federal level and in most states.

Because illegal immigrants -- many of them Hispanic -- can’t pay for college, they don’t have a strong incentive to finish high school, argued Wim Wiewel, president of Portland State University in his testimony before Oregon House lawmakers in February.

“Currently only 56 percent of Hispanic students complete high school. Without the promise of college, these numbers won’t get much better,” Wiewel said.

Most proponents of tuition equity laws say an educated workforce, citizen or not, is good for the local economy.

“Those with college degrees earn higher wages and contribute to the economy as taxpayers and consumers,” writes Jessica Ritter, an associate professor of social work at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., in a guest column for The Oregonian.

The newspaper’s editorial board agrees: “It makes little sense to spend tens of thousands of dollars on primary and secondary education, only to erect a barrier to a college education that could improve job prospects, purchasing power and, incidentally, payroll and income tax revenue.”

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