Higher ed officials back in-state tuition for undocumented students

With the support of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, officials of the state’s two largest public higher education systems are backing a proposal that would grant undocumented students in-state tuition.

“Access is our core mission in public higher education,” Lousie H. Feroe, acting chancellor of the 36,600-student Connecticut State University System, told state lawmakers on the Higher Education Committee. “They deserve the opportunity as a resident of the state of Connecticut.”

The out-of-state tuition undocumented students are required to pay is almost three times higher than the charge for in-state students to attend the University of Connecticut, CSUS and the dozen community colleges. And because these students do not qualify for federal or state financial aid, Feroe said, the price tag makes college unaffordable for too many students.

“We are in favor of increasing access to higher education,” Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor of the state’s 58,200-student community college system, said during an interview. “This would do just that.”

Several Republican lawmakers raised concerns that offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants would result in a loss of revenue for the state’s public colleges and universities.

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Norwalk students Thomas Patino (l) and Gina Caputo wait to testify in support of undocumented friend Diego Aguilar

“The cost I am concerned about,” said Rep. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, the ranking Republican on the Higher Education Committee. “We are not restricting access to education… It’s about money and costs.”

Loss of revenue at the public colleges and universities is a particularly sensitive issue as lawmakers have signaled state funding for public colleges and universities is almost certain. Malloy has proposed reducing funding to the state’s public institutions by $150 million over the next two years.

But Feroe said granting in-state tuition for these students would likely increase revenue for CSUS, because it would expand the number of students able to afford college.

The legislature’s non-partisan Office of Analysis reported in 2007–when the General Assembly voted in favor of a similar proposal that was ultimately vetoed by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell–that CSUS and the community colleges stand to gain additional students and revenue by the shift.

It’s a different story at UConn: Enrollment there is at capacity, so allowing undocumented students to pay less in tuition would reduce revenue.

UConn spokesman Michael Kirk said the university has not taken a position on the bill, but he believes the impact would be minimal. An average of two undocumented students enroll each year, he said; giving them in-state tuition would cost about $16,000 per student.

“The overarching goal is to admit them on their academic record, not on their immigration status,” he said.

As of January 2010, there were 10 other states that allowed illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislators.

Several legal challenges have been mounted against the policy in state courts, but none have been successful so far.

At a town-hall meeting on the budget Tuesday night, Malloy strongly defended the proposed policy in the face of questioning by an angry, unemployed voter. Malloy said it is shortsighted to deny educational opportunities to children who are raised in Connecticut.

Boucher said she worries this law would put the state in a vulnerable position to pay for the costs to defend itself against a lawsuit. She said she believes this may put the state at conflict with federal law, and federal laws must change first.

“I worry we might be putting the cart before the horse,” she said.

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said she doesn’t want to wait.

“I’ve opted to advocate for a state law first,” she said.

David McGuire, a staff attorney for the Connecticut Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the committee that states that allow undocumented students to pay in-state rates have seen a boost in revenues. Colorado’s budget office estimates an influx of 450 students from the shift would generate $4.6 million in new revenue from tuition.

A number of undocumented high school and college students attended the hearing, along with their friends and supporters, wearing bright green and pink stickers reading, “We support in-state tuition. It’s good for Connecticut.”

Gina Caputa, a senior at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, told the committee she is sick of watching her classmates give up on higher education because it is too expensive.

“It pains me that many of my classmates will not be able to celebrate a brighter future,” she told the committee, estimating more than 100 students at her school are undocumented. “That’s a waste of talent.”

Diego Aguilar is one of those students–the valedictorian at Caputa’s school last year and also an illegal immigrant from Mexico.

He was accepted to UConn, but because there was no financial aid available he could only afford the out-of-state tuition at Norwalk Community College. Even to pay that, he said, his parents “worry, fight and struggle.”

Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman attended a press conference before the hearing to signal the Malloy Administration’s support for the measure.

“If job creation is our agenda the why on earth would we want to slam the door on bright young students that are future taxpayers?” she said.