A flawed compromise on illegal immigrant tuition

March 07, 2011

Our view: A bill to allow community colleges to offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants is a good first step toward recouping Maryland's investment in the human capital they represent, but it doesn't go nearly far enough

By the time its young people graduate from high school, Maryland has invested a lot in them — it costs the state nearly $200,000 to educate a child from grades K-12. You'd think, after that, we'd want as many of them as possible to attend college so they could join the well-educated workforce Maryland will need to be competitive in the 21st century. But some lawmakers apparently have a problem with that. They'd rather score political points by bashing immigrants than build up the human capital on which the state's future depends.

A bill in the General Assembly last year would have allowed state public colleges and universities to offer in-state tuition rates to students who were brought here as children by their undocumented-immigrant parents. But it failed after opponents argued it would only reward the bad behavior of adults.

Never mind that these young people entered the country illegally through no fault of their own. Or that Maryland already has invested thousands of dollars in their education through the public schools, as required by federal law. Or that these are kids who generally have done everything right — studied hard, gotten good grades and stayed out of trouble. (They wouldn't be in a position to go to college otherwise.) The hysteria over illegal immigration was too tempting an invitation to legislative grandstanding for some politicians to pass up.

As a result, students who have spent most of their lives as Maryland residents attending Maryland public schools are required to pay out-of-state tuition rates when they enter college in Maryland, even if their parents have been paying Maryland taxes. It's a difference that can amount to thousands of dollars a year — enough to put college out of reach for many — and maintaining it is hardly a smart way for the state to get the best return on its investment.

Fortunately, Sen. Victor Ramirez has introduced a similar bill in this year's General Assembly. Mr. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat who campaigned on a promise to extend in-state tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants, knows from experience the value of education in helping immigrant communities achieve the American dream. But in an effort to mollify critics who claim undocumented students would take places from legal residents at Maryland's premier four-year institutions, where admissions are increasingly competitive, he has crafted an apparent compromise measure that still leaves much to be desired.

Senator Ramirez's proposal would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at four-year colleges and universities. But to be eligible they would first have to complete two years of study at one of Maryland's public community colleges. (The measure also includes a provision allowing community colleges to offer in-state tuition rates to such students.) Since in-state tuition rates at community college are generally a few thousand dollars less those at four-year institutions, it could be argued that a student who went on to earn a bachelor's degree might even wind up paying less for his or her education than if he or she had attended a four-year school all along.

At first glance, Mr. Ramirez' proposal seems reasonable. Given the tough admissions standards at the state's four-year schools, it's likely many undocumented students would choose to start at a community college anyway — as do an increasing number of Maryland students generally. And since most state community colleges have open-admissions policies, undocumented students wouldn't be competing with legal residents for scarce slots at the state's selective colleges and universities. After two years at a community college, they could transfer to a four-year institution and pay the discounted in-state tuition rate there as well.

On closer examination, however, the policy doesn't make a lot of sense — except as a political white flag to those who oppose any form of accommodation to undocumented immigrants, and they probably won't be mollified by it anyway.

For one thing, Mr. Ramirez's proposal just kicks the problem of undocumented students competing for slots with legal residents down the road a couple of years. When those undocumented students apply for transfers to four-year schools in their sophomore year, there will still be only a fixed number of openings available, so for every undocumented student admitted there'll be one less place for a legal resident.

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