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News / Nation & World

Nearly half the states now allow in-state tuition for immigrant students

By Elaine S. Povich, Stateline.org
Published: August 27, 2023, 6:36am

When Cristian Dubon Solis was getting ready to graduate from a Boston high school in 2020, he started planning to apply to college. It was only then he realized that as an immigrant lacking permanent legal status, he wouldn’t qualify for in-state tuition at Massachusetts state universities, nor for state-sponsored financial aid.

With no way to afford a four-year school to pursue his dream major, environmental science, he put those plans on hold.

“I took a few gap years afterward,” said the now 21-year-old from East Boston, a community where about half the residents are Hispanic or Latino. Solis now advocates for young immigrants as a student coordinator for a nonprofit group called SIM, which formerly stood for Student Immigration Movement.

One of four siblings, Solis came to the United States from El Salvador at age 3. His three younger sisters were born in the U.S., he said. Family and friends didn’t discuss their immigration status, so he never heard about the tuition restrictions.

“In families of the immigrant community it’s very hush-hush, you don’t talk about it,” he said. “It’s hard to figure out what options I had or didn’t have, because nobody talked about it.”

But now Solis is about to apply to colleges in Massachusetts, including UMass-Boston.

Democratic Gov. Maura Healey signed the state budget this month with a provision that will allow certain immigrants without permanent legal status — those who have attended high school in Massachusetts for at least three years or who have earned a GED certificate — to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities. The law takes effect immediately.

The idea has bipartisan appeal, with some conservative supporters this year saying it helps reduce workforce shortages and boost tax revenue.

In June, Nevada Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo enacted a law allowing immigrants who have been granted status under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, or DACA program, to qualify for in-state tuition after living in Nevada for 12 months. That action expanded on a law that allowed high school graduates lacking permanent legal status to do so.

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And in Florida this year, state lawmakers rejected a proposal from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to scrap in-state tuition for students without permanent legal status. He had wanted to include it in a bill to tighten restrictions on immigrants living in the country illegally.

But critics of the in-state tuition changes argue states are facing an influx of immigrants and already are stretched thin to pay for needed housing and services. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, in June signed a 2024 budget that included a boost for higher education funding but prohibited students without permanent legal status from getting in-state tuition or state scholarships.

Massachusetts became the 24th state to grant immigrants without legal status access to in-state tuition, according to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal, a website run by a coalition of 18 higher education and immigration organizations to provide information and resources to immigrant students.

In-state tuition is generally thousands of dollars less per year than for out-of-state students. For example, the undergraduate tuition and fees at Massachusetts state schools averaged $10,036 for state residents and $28,813 for out-of-state residents in the 2022-23 school year, according to College Tuition Compare, a nationwide college evaluation website.

Seventeen of the states granting in-state tuition also allow the students to be eligible for financial aid, as does the District of Columbia, according to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal.

Four states — Delaware, Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania — restrict the number of public universities at which immigrants without permanent legal status are eligible for in-state tuition, according to the portal.

Five states — Arkansas, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi and Ohio — provide that tuition discount only to young immigrants who have DACA status. The Obama-era DACA program allows immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and who meet other qualifications to avoid deportation and obtain work permits. New applications for the program are on hold while long-running court battles play out.

By contrast, nine states specifically block access to in-state tuition or state financial aid for residents lacking permanent legal status, the immigration portal found. They are: Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The last three have laws that prevent students without permanent legal status from even enrolling in all or some public colleges, though there may be some exceptions for students with DACA status, according to the portal.

Opponents of extending in-state tuition argue that scarce state resources should not be spent on immigrants living in the country illegally, particularly when states are dealing with a wave of new immigrant families that strains the states’ safety net.

While the Massachusetts law garnered wide support in the Democratic-controlled state, some Republican opponents pointed out that the Healey administration recently called for the federal government to speed funding to provide shelter and services for immigrants in the state and encouraged state residents to take families into their homes.

“It’s the wrong priority at this date and time,” said Republican state Sen. Ryan Fattman in an interview with Stateline. “The governor declared a state of emergency for migrant influx into the state. We have a lot of shelters that are overrun. [At the same time,] we are providing a lot of benefits to people who are not lawfully in Massachusetts, in-state tuition being one of them.

“The question is can we continue to afford this?” Fattman said.

But advocates for granting in-state tuition say the state must educate young immigrants if it wants to make up for the number of residents who are leaving the state and taking tax revenue with them. Massachusetts lost 110,900 people to out-migration from April 2020 to July 2022, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. In-migration in 2022 was about 43,000, the organization found.

“What Massachusetts did is good for the people of Massachusetts, it’s good for the ‘Dreamers’ who get a chance to go to school and pay in-state tuition,” said Don Graham, a founder of TheDream.Us, an organization that gives scholarships to students who came to the U.S. illegally before age 16 and before Nov. 1, 2017. (“Dreamers” refers to young people brought to the United States illegally as children by family; the term stems from never-passed congressional legislation called the DREAM Act.)

“They become a health care worker, they become a teacher, they become a computer programmer. Seems to me that’s good for the ‘Dreamers’ and good for the state,” said Graham, who also is chair of the board of the Graham Holdings Company and former publisher of The Washington Post.

Miriam Feldblum, co-founder and executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group comprised of university leaders, said consideration of in-state tuition for students without legal status has become increasingly important in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to end affirmative action programs on campuses.

“As colleges and universities look at how to attract diverse populations, it is incumbent upon all institutions to look at immigrant students,” she said in an interview with Stateline. “It is one important strategy to attract a diverse and talented crop of students.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.