Funding Equality

On January 7, 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill allowing undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition, joining 18 other states that have passed similar legislation as part of the Dream Act. Students who lack legal immigration status but have attended at least three years of high school in New Jersey and have earned a diploma will qualify for the lower tuition rates.

This new legislation follows a series of immigration reforms at the state level that has moved towards integration rather than enforcement. Earlier in the week, the Washington State House of Representatives passed a measure allowing undocumented students to qualify for state financial aid. Other states like California, Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland have recently started issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

Under federal law, undocumented students are ineligible for any form of federal financial aid, including grants, work-study arrangements, and student loans. According to the Wall Street Journal, there are approximately 2.1 million undocumented students in the United States, nearly 30 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Many of these individuals, despite meeting the financial aid eligibility criteria, cannot afford to go to school while paying the out-of-state rates, which can be nearly three times as much as in-state tuition. Private scholarships are often out of the question because many require citizenship or at least legal permanent residency.

Opponents of these new reforms cite high costs in a time where many states are already struggling with scarce resources generated by budget deficits. The measure issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants in California, for example, will cost the state $65 million. There are also ideological reasons, as proponents of stricter enforcement balk at the notion of what they see as rewarding illegal behavior.

But there is a logical and pragmatic rationale behind this new legislature. It makes little economic sense to make it difficult for qualified students to attend university when the state already supports their K-12 education. Under federal law established by the Supreme Court case Plyer v. Doe (1982), the state is required to provide a public education to all students, regardless of their legal status. According to Gov. Christie, New Jersey invests approximately $17,700 annually in each student in the public school system. That investment is derived from taxes, and taxpayers should be able to maximize their return on investment. Facilitating an opportunity for higher education among undocumented students would ultimately lead to a higher likelihood of those individuals earning higher incomes, which would translate into increased tax revenue. Penalizing the children of undocumented immigrants—students who have managed to flourish in an adverse environment––would be nonsensical, especially sincethey are not responsible for their parents’ decision to immigrate to the United States. If they are capable enough to put themselves in the position to be accepted to a university in the first place, chances are that they will capitalize on the opportunity to further their education and meet the perpetually rising demands of the labor market. Expanding the skilled labor force eventually puts money back into the economy. Additionally, these reforms will create an impetus for students to excel in school and generally foster a culture of better academic performance.

There is no doubt that immigration remains a politically contentious issue. However, efforts are being made to achieve some sort of progress. Congressional Republicans are mulling over proposals to overhaul immigration policy, which could potentially provide a pathway for more than 6.5 million illegal immigrants to gain legal citizenship in the United States. While Republicans traditionally have been known to push strict anti-illegal immigration laws (such as Arizona SB 1070) the new surge in inclusive measures serves as a reminder that politics are always at play. Immigration has become an increasingly important issue, especially for Hispanic voters and other minority groups. The fact that Congress and Republican leaders such as Gov. Christie and Governor Rick Snyder [of Michigan] are moving towards integration rather than isolation is representative of a general GOP realization that the support (or lack thereof) of immigrants could have huge political and economic ramifications.

New Jersey’s bill is an achievement, but Gov. Christie still has his concerns. Establishing a program advocating tuition equality also creates the risk of making New Jersey what he refers to as a “magnet state,” where outside residents could potentially exploit the new system. But as Gov. Christie says, “This is what compromise looks like.” Other leaders would be wise to follow.

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