October 23, 2013 Articles

Tuition Equality: The Ongoing Battle for the Right to Higher Education

The majority of state legislatures have remained silent on the issue.

By Mollie Berkowitz

Lately, chants of “education, not segregation” have echoed throughout Ann Arbor, Michigan, as protesters block off streets in an attempt to be heard. But why? The University of Michigan doesn’t discriminate based on race. In fact, race legally cannot be considered in admissions decisions at the University of Michigan. These chants are suggesting something else: tuition equality for undocumented students.

The battle for tuition equality isn’t confined to the University of Michigan, though: A wide range of bills regarding the issue have been proposed throughout the country. The nation’s first tuition-equality bill—recently upheld by the Supreme Court—hails from California. California’s AB 540 allows all students who meet certain criteria access to in-state tuition regardless of their immigration status. Undocumented students who meet the specified criteria in California also have equal access to state financial aid per AB 540.

Opposite the California statute are Alabama’s and Georgia’s, which prohibit undocumented students from attending state universities in any context. All in all, 13 states allow in-state tuition for undocumented students, while 3 specifically prohibit it, though they allow undocumented students to attend. Colorado Asset, Higher Educ. Alliance, 13 States Already Have In-State Tuition. To this point, the majority of state legislatures have remained silent on the issue.

It is crucial to provide access to affordable education to as many Americans as possible, regardless of their immigration status. An educated workforce is key to a prosperous economy, as was demonstrated by the unprecedented growth in the American economy in the wake of the GI Bill, which made education accessible to some 2.2 million veterans in the aftermath of World War II. Robert E. Parkin, “Invention, Technology, and the GI Bill,” Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008. Today, there are some 12 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States, with a high percentage of them falling into the 18–24 age range. Jeffrey S. Passel & D’Vera Cohn, A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States (Pew Hispanic Ctr. 2009).

Barring undocumented students from public universities hardly seems like a logical solution to America’s complex immigration problem, as it does nothing but perpetuate the cycle of poverty among undocumented immigrants. Passel & Cohn, supra. Currently, 21 percent of undocumented adults fall below the poverty line, compared with 10 percent of undocumented U.S.-born adults. Brian Resnick, “Who Are the 11 Million Undocumented Immigrants?,” Nat’l J., Jan. 29, 2013.

Though California’s landmark AB 540 passed in 2001, by the end of 2004, similar laws had passed in Texas, New York, Utah, Washington, Oklahoma, Illinois, and Kansas. Colorado Asset, supra. Recently, there has been a marked decline in the number of tuition-equality bills that have passed. The latest tuition-equality bills to pass did so in Maryland and Connecticut in May and June 2011, respectively. The decline in the passing of favorable bills, however, has not stopped activists across the country from banding together and creating organizations ranging from the Coalition for Tuition Equality at the University of Michigan—a union of 32 student organizations committed to tuition equality—to the Let’s Learn NC campaign, which advocates for tuition equality with the “one state, one rate” slogan.

Lack of access to higher education is only one of the obstacles undocumented immigrants face in the patchwork immigration system we have today. Many hope for the passing of the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants of good moral character who have graduated from public high schools to obtain temporary residency and, if they fulfill certain requirements, eventually obtain permanent residency.

In the wake of the government shutdown, the DREAM Act looms far off in the distance, as does hope for equal access to education for undocumented immigrants in most parts of the country. Nationwide access to tuition equality (and in some states, access to public universities in any context) would allow hundreds of thousands if not millions of undocumented immigrants to obtain an education and to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

Keywords: litigation, access to justice, tuition equality, immigration, education

Mollie Berkowitz is a sophomore at the University of Michigan and hopes to attend law school.

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