Students who immigrated to the U.S. with their parents as children may soon be eligible to receive in-state tuition rates if approved by state lawmakers.
“It’s the difference between being able to access higher education and not,” said state Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D- Dist. 49), who represents parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties.
Lopez is one of four House members sponsoring bills that would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition if they meet criterion. Two similar bills have been filed by state senators.
The bills are all very similar, said Lopez, in that they include an in-state residency requirement like those currently required of U.S.-born students seeking in-state tuition rates. Students must also meet high school graduation requirements, provide affidavits demonstrating efforts to become permanent U.S. residents, and be able to show they resided with parents or guardians while attending high school in Virginia.
A similar bill submitted by Del. Tom Rust (R-Dist. 86) of Herndon would require students to have arrived in the U.S. prior to their 16th birthday and reside in Virginia for five years.
Another bill by Del. Kaye Kory (D-Dist. 38) would make the residency requirement one year, which is the same requirement for U.S.-born students seeking Virginia in-state tuition rates.
Delegates said it was likely their bills would be combined by the House Committee on Education, which is scheduled to review the bills early next week. If approved by committee, the bills would be forwarded to the floor of the House for a vote before facing Senate approval.
“The way [this issue] came to my attention is: a number of [high school] guidance counselors and educators came to me and said, ‘we have a lot of students who would like to pay in-state tuition,’” Kory said. She added that the issue of access to higher education is an economic one, saying the House bills are similar to executive action signed by President Barack Obama.
“The deferred action for childhood arrivals is the status that Obama created when he issued the executive order, which is for children who were brought here by their parents,” Kory said. “A lot of them don’t know they are illegal until they apply for college.”
If approved, state law would mirror the failed DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), which was first proposed in 2001 by President George W. Bush and again last year by Obama.
“This legislation would be an absolute game changer for some of my students,” said Fairfax High School teacher Eric Kinne, who coordinates the school’s AVID program-–a college readiness class whose students are often the children of immigrants or will be the first in their family to go to college.
“I have conversations with my AVID seniors almost daily about how they’re going to pay for college, and I can think of several former students who weren’t able to go to great schools simply because they didn’t qualify for in-state tuition due to their status,” Kinne said. “These are kids who have been here for years, have worked incredibly hard to achieve success in school, have received multiple acceptance letters to top-tier state schools, and are left frustrated with few options… Having the option to attend a college while paying in-state rates could change the trajectory of their lives for the better. It could literally change lives.”
Educational organizations like the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) are supporting the proposed bills, which are also being backed by area Latino advocacy groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens –a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit—and the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations.
“SCHEV has been offering technical advice to General Assembly members interested in extended opportunity to those students whose families came to Virginia as children and who wish to continue their education after high school,” SCHEV Director Peter Blake said. “Higher education access and opportunity adds to Virginia’s economic and civic well being.”
Financial impact statements issued by the state Department of Planning and Budget show no projected added cost if these bills are approved, which would increase the number of students eligible for in-state tuition rates. However, the impact statements did highlight that Fairfax County’s Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University would feel the change because of the area’s high immigrant populations.