Frustrated with Congress’ decade-long stalling on immigration reform, states are increasingly striking out on their own when it comes to benefits for college-bound undocumented students. Many state lawmakers have taken action to grant them lower tuition costs and financial aid while President Obama pressures Congress on his new immigration agenda.
Earlier this week, California opened their financial aid application to qualified undocumented students applying to college and officials are anticipating around 20,000 applicants. New York is now considering similar financial aid legislation.
Some state lawmakers say most Americans support greater access to higher education for undocumented students and Congress is behind the curve.
“That train has left the station, everybody understands that we need to,” says New York State Senator Adriano Espaillat, sponsor of legislation included in a new comprehensive bill that offers state aid and private contributions for undocumented students in New York. “In many cases, these students are denied access to an education because they don’t have the money to pay for it on their own.”
The College Board estimates approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year and confront financial barriers when applying to college.
Antonio Alarcón, a journalism student at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, says he was turned down for a full scholarship because he has no Social Security number. “I was part of the student government, captain of the volleyball team, and involved in community service,” he said. “It was a hard moment for me to know I couldn’t apply for government aid.”
Alarcón’s parents entered the country illegally when he was six years old, and returned to Mexico for work, leaving him to complete elementary, middle and high school in the United States under the care of his grandmother. “We all deserve the same rights,” the 18-year-old said. “We’re not treated the same as other communities.”
The Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy has led many students like Alarcón to pursue college because they know they can stay in the country and are permitted to work without threat of deportation. As of January 2013, over 150,000 undocumented youths have received relief under the program.
“It makes sense that public funds be invested,” says Dr. Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. “Many of those coming out with degrees are in high demand in STEM fields. They would help the economy. It’s in the best interest of communities to allow their own people to excel.”
But some experts say these states are unfairly burdening other students and their families.
“They’re making college more expensive for their own citizens,” says Hans von Spakovsky, Manager of Civil Justice Reform at the Heritage Foundation. “They are basically subsidizing education through their taxes to people who are here illegally.”
States that make the switch to in-state tuition lose out on approximately $20,000 per student. The average cost of attending a public four-year college for in-state students in 2012 was $8,655 and $21,7006 for out-of-state students, according to the College Board.
Spakovsky adds that, in the interest of fairness, if states offer in-state tuition for undocumented students they should then offer similar rates to out-of-state students.
In 1996, undocumented students were given the right to attend private and public colleges but it was left up to the states to decide if students were eligible for in-state residency and tuition rates.
Most states have made no move to craft laws that count undocumented students as in-state residents but thirteen have — Utah, New York, Washington, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Maryland, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Texas, New Mexico and California.
Three states–Texas, New Mexico, and, this month, California– offer financial aid in addition to lower rates.
Some states–Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina– have taken federal law one step further and adopted statutes or regulations that explicitly bar undocumented students from in-state tuition rates. (Colorado legislators have proposed a bill this year offering in-state tuition rates.)
South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia outlaw undocumented students from enrolling in public institutions within their state altogether.
Action at the state level may not be enough to address a nationwide issue, says adjunct Professor Stephen Yale-Loehr, adjunct professor at Cornell Law School.
“Many of these students came at an early age and had no say in coming to the United States,” says Yale-Loehr. “As a practical matter we’re never going to deport them. Congress has to address comprehensive immigration reform.”