By Katharine McCarten. Read as PDF. The US Supreme Court landmark decision in Plyler v. Doe in 1982 recognized personhood under the Fourteenth Amendment for all undocumented persons in the country. With this recognition came guaranteed access to public education through secondary school. However, since 1982 the undocumented immigrant population has spread widely across the nation and now presents an important new educational dilemma.
Each year, American high schools graduate an estimated 65,000 undocumented students. Most are precluded from pursuing post-secondary education by the high cost of tuition. The Massachusetts Legislature is currently considering a bill that would allow undocumented students who meet certain requirements to attend state colleges and universities at the relatively low in-state tuition rate. The bill is similar to legislation already enacted in 12 other states. Meanwhile, a similar effort, known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM), has been proposed on the national level, but remains stalled in Congress.
The DREAM Act would allow some undocumented students who came to this country as children the opportunity to attend college and become permanent residents and citizens of the United States. But since first being proposed in 2003, the bill has met deep opposition. Senator Orin Hatch, Republican of Utah, one of the Act’s original sponsors, has remarked that “though these children have built their lives here, they have no possibility of achieving and living the American dream.” He went on to say he considers that “a tremendous loss to our society.”
There are an estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Among states that have extended educational opportunities to undocumented immigrants are Massachusetts’ close neighbors, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Texas, a state where undocumented immigrants make up 6.7% of total population, has the longest running in-state tuition program, established over a decade ago. Anyone who attends a Texas high school for at least three years and graduates is eligible for in-state tuition rates. As of October 2011, Texas, California and New Mexico were the only states to allow undocumented students to receive financial aid. Elsewhere in the country, tuition and living expenses for undocumented students must be paid out of pocket or through privately funded scholarships, and without federally funded aid.
The law proposed in Massachusetts would required the following: three years of attendance at a Massachusetts high school, a diploma or equivalent GED, and an affidavit promising to apply for legal residency within 120 days of eligibility.
There are an estimated 160,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts. About 1,700 graduate from high schools across the state annually. In-state tuition at UMass Boston totals $10,878, compared to $23,952 for a non-resident, thus the savings is considerable.
Research indicates that, if passed, this legislation would enable about 80 undocumented students to continue their education at the college level. Over four years such enrollment is projected to increase to about 600 a year. Still, this represents less than half of undocumented graduates, a clear indicator of the difficulty of enrolling without financial aid.
Even as enrollment increases, the number of undocumented students would still represent only a tiny fraction of the state’s 160,000 public college and university students, adding negligible new costs to the state. The tuition received from these students, on the other hand, could represent up to $7.4 million in new revenue over four years.
Opponents to opening state college doors wider argue that undocumented persons do not pay into our federal and state governments and therefore should not benefit from in-state tuition. However, many undocumented workers obtain jobs using fake social security numbers, thus they pay into the social security system without any hope of benefiting from it. In the 1990’s this amounted to more than $20 billion dollars. Furthermore, the IRS has determined that undocumented immigrants paid almost $50 billion in federal income taxes between 1996 and 2003 by filing under an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number system. These identification numbers are issued by the IRS to foreign persons otherwise ineligible for a social security number in order to fulfill their tax obligations.
An economic study from UCLA indicates that there are 2.1 million immigrants who would benefit from the DREAM Act. If all obtained a college degree, their earning power could top more than $3.6 trillion over the next 40 years, making a substantial contribution the national economy.
Regrettably, immigration is such a politically divisive issue that it remains difficult, if not impossible, to pass in-state tuition in a state without a large immigrant population such as Texas and California. In Massachusetts, that means that for the foreseeable future, a college education for thousands of deserving high school graduates will likely remain only a dream.
Katharine McCarten is a third-year student at Suffolk University Law School, with a particular interest in education policy and health law. She received her B.A in Political Science from the University of Rhode Island in 2008. Katharine is interning with the Board of Medical Licensure at Rhode Island’s Department of Health this summer.