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Equal Financial Access to Higher Education is an Issue of Access

By Kerri Provost

March 15, 2011

A standing room only crowd wore yellow ribbons as they testified before the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee at the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday morning for H.B. No. 6390 An Act Concerning Access to Postsecondary Education. The bill was introduced by State Rep. Donovan, State Rep. Sharkey, State Senator Williams, and State Senator Looney.

Currently, students who are undocumented immigrants pay the out-of-state tuition fee, rather than in-state tuition, regardless of whether or not they actually reside in the state. When people think about “illegal” immigrants, they typically imagine adults sneaking across borders; what is often the case is that youth, who have no discernible free will, are brought here by their parents, often at such young ages that these individuals have no memory of their country of origin. It’s not unheard of for these undocumented individuals to reside in the state longer than their native-born peers who benefit from the reduced tuition.

There was some opposition to the bill. As one representative — Vincent Candelora — said, “we’re faced with the dilemma of federal law.” There was also concern about the budget deficit and how this “$30 million dollar expenditure” would affect that. The representative said, “We are going to be potentially educating a workforce that is not eligible to work in Connecticut,” referring to how it is illegal to employ undocumented immigrants in the state.

A college education does not guarantee jobs for anyone, though it certainly makes one more competitive; moreover, laws have the possibility of changing and students seeking higher education today may in fact find themselves with the possibility of legal employment in Connecticut a few years down the line. As any nontraditional (re: older adult) college student will attest, it’s easier to seek an education while young than it is to do so when burdened with responsibilities like full-time employment and children. Using the concern of employability as an excuse to not pass this bill is simply weak; currently, there are some students filling spots at every college and university who are there because it is expected of them, and not because they are driven to acquire the needed skills and knowledge for a future career.

Furthermore, the $30 million dollar estimate is not accurate. The $30 million dollar amount actually came from if all out-of-state residents were to pay the in-state tuition; the bill would not be allowing all out-of-state residents to pay the reduced rate, only in-state undocumented residents. Additionally, it is based on the assumption that all undocumented immigrants would be attending college; we know that many students, of all backgrounds, do not go to college for a variety of reasons. The discussion of the $30 million dollar expenditure produced a lot of confusion as there was no clear explanation for how that sum was decided on. State Senator Looney actually noted that there was evidence that there could be a revenue gain.

There was also a need to clarify the bill itself, which proposes that any student who has resided in this state for four years and who has attended high school in this state would be eligible for the reduced in-state tuition. In other words, nobody would be moving into Connecticut on Sunday and getting the reduced tuition on Monday. Yet, some speaking out against the bill seemed misinformed, saying that this bill would provide a kind of “aid” for students. Undocumented students can not receive financial aid. For more examples of sheer misinformation, read through what opposition to the bill have been writing.

State Senator Looney spoke in support of the bill, saying that “these young people are highly motivated.” He argued that we will have a more viable and attractive workforce if it is a highly educated one. Looney stated that “our nation should be a meritocracy,” and that the undocumented students would have to meet the same standards, with no special seats set aside for them.

Looney explained that this bill would be affecting a couple hundred undocumented individuals at any given time and would affect the most motivated individuals because they are not taking education for granted.

An assumption often made is that resolving the cost of education for undocumented residents would somehow displace documented ones; this idea further assumes that all documented residents are more intelligent and motivated than undocumented residents. This assumption is simply not true. One representative asked what to tell a ‘B’ student who applies to UConn and does not get in because there is not enough space. My answer? She should have worked harder and earned an ‘A’ average. She should have done more volunteer work and participated in more extracurricular activities.

There was concern from one other representative about what to tell children who don’t make the cut. Such a question brings up the way in which power works. People who have it are reluctant to give it up. A different question that could be asked is “what do we tell those who have earned better grades than their native-born peers, but who are in effect barred from a good post secondary education because they would have to pay an additional $10,000 per year in tuition?” Testimony from those in the education system (faculty, staff, and students) speaks to the truth that not every native-born student is as deserving or hard-working as they are painted by those in power who are fighting tooth-and-nail to keep that power. What’s interesting here is that those most concerned about undocumented residents “taking” a space that a native-born resident “could have had” are not directly involved in the postsecondary education system, even if they may have children or grandchildren in it.

State Senator Edith Prague, an 85-year old former school teacher, spoke in support of the bill, saying that without a college education today, people can go nowhere. She said, “If we don’t offer these young people the chance to get an education, we will be throwing them into the pit.” Prague asked, “What would you gain by punishing them for coming here with parents who are undocumented?” Many students are not even aware of their status until it is time for them to apply to college.

Acting Chancellor of the Connecticut University System –Dr. Louise H. Feroe — said that “there are fundamental legal issues that must carefully be considered” but “students who completed four years of high school in CT, graduated from high school, and met all admission criteria” should receive the in-state tuition as these “students have no access to financial aid.” Feroe believes we will receive a positive financial impact by making in-state tuition available to more state residents.

A question that arose was how undocumented students were being accepted into colleges. Feroe explained that students are not required to provide social security numbers when applying for college. Any information about residential status is only looked at after the student has been accepted. At that stage, the tuition (in-state or out-of-state) rate is determined.

New Haven Mayor DeStefano, another supporter of the bill, said that “immigration grows economies.”

The public comment portion of the hearing began almost two hours later than it was scheduled to and included overwhelming support for the bill, as evidenced by those wearing stickers and ribbons in support, in addition to those speaking publicly; speakers included students, faith leaders, teachers, and social workers, along with representatives from the Anti-Defamation League and the ACLU. This is Spring Break week for many college and universities, which is what enabled so many to appear for a public hearing without having to take time away from their studies.

UPDATE (17 March 2011): It appears that HB-6390 has passed through the committee.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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