Tuition equity on federal level should be priority
University President Robert L. Barchi recently wrote to New Jersey’s congressional delegation, discussing the difficulties of undocumented students and the impact their plight has on our communities, state, nation and economy. He called upon our representatives and senators to join in the bipartisan effort to enact comprehensive immigration reform as quickly as possible.
He’s right, and we are fortunate that under the bipartisan leadership of Senators Robert Menendez, D-N.J., John McCain, R-Ariz., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as well as support from U.S. President Barack Obama and a growing bipartisan chorus in the House of Representatives, comprehensive reform — including the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act — may be within reach.
He noted that the current immigration system discourages investment in human capital by making higher education financially impossible for the children of undocumented residents. These children comprise a growing segment of our future workforce, and we must adopt policies that encourage the full development of their intellectual capacity and the breadth of their skill bases.
Barchi wrote that under current policies, it is impossible for these young people to gain access to federal loans and to the work-study programs that help make a higher education affordable. As a result, many gifted young people, who would otherwise seek a higher education that would provide them with the essential tools to become vibrant members of the 21st-century workforce, are relegated to a stagnant future.
He also noted that this lack of access negates the billions of public dollars invested in the K-12 education of these young people, and dramatically undermines the potential of these young people and the communities in which they reside.
His letter was clear and compelling, but it also underscored the importance of securing comprehensive federal action prior to the enactment of state laws.
Comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level is essential if New Jersey’s colleges and universities are to be able to provide in-state tuition rates to undocumented students and not create a whole new set of problems by creating a broad new definition of what is required to qualify for in-state tuition rates.
The National Immigration Law Center, a national legal advocacy organization in the United States exclusively dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of low-income immigrants and their families, explains that Section 505 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 mandates that states that provide a higher education benefit based on residency — like in-state tuition rates — to undocumented immigrants, must provide the same benefit to U.S. citizens in the same circumstances, regardless of their state of residence.
What that means is that American colleges and universities that provide in-state tuition rates to undocumented students based on residency must provide in-state tuition rates to all students, regardless of where they live. This provision is known as the “Section 505 Penalty.”
In order to circumvent the problem, several states have crafted laws that provide in-state benefits to undocumented students by changing the definition of those qualified for in-state tuition rates to include all students who have attended and graduated from high school in those states.
Legislation has been introduced in New Jersey that follows this model.
But this approach is fraught with problems and unintended consequences. While rightly trying to address the plight of undocumented students, this approach actually opens the door for any person — regardless of where they actually live, work or pay taxes — to be entitled to in-state graduate or undergraduate tuition rates for the rest of their lives, as long as they went to and graduated from the appropriate high school.
The solution is not to try to find a way to circumvent or mitigate the impact of the federal “Section 505 Penalty” — the solution is to eliminate Section 505 of the IIRIRA.
Eliminating Section 505, and thus the “Section 505 Penalty,” is one of the many things that the DREAM Act does. And, because of the unintended consequences of the approach to providing in-state tuition rates embodied in the bills currently introduced in the N.J. Legislature, it is essential that the DREAM Act be enacted first, so that effective reform can occur in New Jersey.
There is general agreement that we need tuition equity in higher education. True tuition equity will only come if we continue to push federal lawmakers to enact comprehensive reform and to get on the right side of history
Pete McDonough is Vice President of Public Affairs for Rutgers University. Alex Perez is the University’s Assistant General Counsel.