Illinois leads in immigrant education reform

By Jonathan Wroble

The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education approved a document April 19 that aims to let illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at the state’s public schools.

If this goal turns into law, Massachusetts will become the 11th state to offer reduced tuition to undocumented immigrants – a list that includes Illinois.

“This is an issue of fairness and one of educational opportunity,” said Don Sevener, director of external relations for the Illinois Board of Higher Education. “It’s a lot cheaper to pay in-state tuition than out-of-state tuition.”

At the University, Illinois residents routinely pay less than half the price of out-of-state tuition.

The case is the same at the University of Massachusetts, where non-residents paid more than $19,000 for this year’s tuition while residents paid less than $9,000.

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The document recently approved in Massachusetts, however, argues that the state can benefit financially from cutting costs for college-bound illegal immigrants. It cites a tax report from January 2006 that says as many as 600 students might enter public schools as a result, which would translate into $2.5 million of extra state revenue.

“It’s a contribution to the economy,” said Aaron Spencer, acting chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, in a statement. “I’m not an ideologue. I’m not saying we have to stand up and open the borders.”

In 2003, when an Illinois bill officially allowed undocumented citizens to pay in-state tuition, the economic argument was on the other side of the issue.

That year, a University of Illinois at Chicago study estimated that the state would lose up to $11.6 million per year if the bill were passed.

The study also found that just 6 percent of undocumented students attend college – a number that proponents of the bill hoped to increase.

“Generally speaking, the primary motivation was that these potential students are Illinois residents, and in many cases they have lived in Illinois most of their lives,” Sevener said. “They’re for all practical purposes citizens, except in documentation.”

As a result of the 2003 bill, Illinois residents at state colleges pay in-state tuition if they meet five written conditions.

The final condition requests that undocumented students provide their university with an affidavit stating that they will seek U.S. citizenship as soon as possible following enrollment.

“Given these conditions in the statue, I believe it was felt that these are individuals who deserve the same treatment as far as higher education as other Illinois residents,” Sevener said.

At the same time, the future may not be so bright for undocumented residents of Massachusetts.

In January 2006, the state’s House rejected a bill that would have allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. The state’s higher education board, meanwhile, has endorsed similar but differently drafted legislation since 2004.

The ensuing decision, which is expected to come within the next few months, will be left up to lawmakers, not individual institutions.

“From (a college’s) standpoint, a student’s a student,” Sevener said. “There’s no reason to distinguish between them.”