How Many Undocumented Immigrants Are Actually Getting In-State Tuition?

State Dream Acts have drawn passionate responses from both advocates and critics. But evidence suggests these measures have had limited impact.
by | May 2015
(Flickr/Ruben Hernandez)

Immigration laws, it almost goes without saying, have sparked a great deal of controversy in recent years. That includes Dream Acts, which offer in-state tuition to young undocumented immigrants. For supporters, which usually include social progressives and the business community, they offer a practical solution to a real-world problem: undocumented immigrants graduating from high school and earning admission into college, but choosing not to attend because of the high cost. These measures exist in some form in at least 20 states, but they still draw complaints that taxpayers are subsidizing college for people not in the country legally.

Despite all the hand-wringing over these initiatives, it turns out that Dream Acts have a relatively minor impact on college enrollment. “For all of the great heat in the battle,” says Margie McHugh, a researcher at the Migration Policy Institute who has studied the impact of these kinds of measures, “it was a bit surprising that the numbers seemed to be relatively low.”

In Washington state, which enacted one of the nation’s first in-state tuition measures, in 2003, the annual number of presumed undocumented immigrants entering college on in-state tuition did grow steadily over the law’s first decade, from 25 students enrolled in the first school year to 1,100 last year. Still, that’s less than 1 percent of all undergraduate students in the state. By comparison, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates more than 3 percent of the state’s overall population is made up of undocumented immigrants. “The problem was the same,” says Washington state Rep. Zack Hudgins. Even with in-state tuition, “college was still too expensive.”

Washington state isn’t alone in seeing a trickle of undocumented students enrolling in higher education. Colorado, which passed its Dream Act two years ago, estimates that in the first three semesters with the new policy, about 950 students have been undocumented immigrants on in-state tuition -- again, less than 1 percent of total enrollment. Data aren’t available in Maryland -- another state to recently pass a Dream Act -- but a prospective analysis by researchers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County predicted that just 435 undocumented immigrants would enroll as new students each year on in-state tuition.

Just because these laws’ impact may be small, that doesn’t mean they’re ineffective, says Stella Flores, a policy researcher at Vanderbilt University. In her review of Texas’ in-state tuition law, she found undocumented immigrants were more likely to have enrolled in college than their peers in Southwestern states without a tuition policy.

Lawmakers such as Hudgins have tried to respond to complaints that higher education remains out of reach -- even with in-state tuition -- in part because federal financial aid for low-income students is off-limits for undocumented immigrants. That led to a bipartisan bill in the Washington Legislature extending state-funded financial aid to the same group of students who already qualified for in-state tuition. Again, the authors hope that by lowering the price of college, enrollment among undocumented immigrants will go up.

Hudgins is untroubled by the possibility that his state’s immigration policies might continue to benefit a small number of students. “You level the playing field and create the opportunity to excel,” he says, “and if you get one or two more people into college than before, then I think that’s a success.”