The passage Friday of a bill in the Maryland House of Delegates extending in-state college tuition rates to children of undocumented immigrants who graduate from Maryland high schools opens the way for these young people to have a real shot at the American dream by going on to college. Though the debate over the issue has been spirited and at times contentious, in the end lawmakers did the right thing by recognizing how much the state's future depends on a highly educated workforce, and how badly it will need all the bright young minds it can get in order to grow and prosper.
Given that the state Senate passed a similar proposal last month, and that Gov. Martin O'Malley promised to sign it if it reached his desk, the measure is virtually assured of becoming law after the minor differences between the two bills are worked out. Yet it was one of the most divisive issues in Annapolis this year after opponents condemned the measure as a reward for the bad behavior of people who had no right to be here in the first place. One the other side were supporters who argued with equal vehemence that the real issue was not immigration but broadening access to education, and that in any case these young people were going to remain in Maryland whether they attended college or not.
The reality is that Maryland is required by federal law to educate all children living in the state from grades K-12, regardless of their immigration status. By the time a student graduates from high school, the state has already spent nearly $200,000 on his or her education. With that big an investment in every child, it makes no sense to throw any of it away by blocking access to college for people whose parents brought them into the country years ago and who now may know no other home.
IIlegal immigration is a real problem. However, we have consistently argued that it cannot be allowed to blind us to the need for making the tough choices we are faced with regarding the people who are already in this country. Either we do what is necessary to allow them to become productive, law-abiding members of society who can contribute to the state's future growth and prosperity — or we create a permanent underclass of undereducated, unskilled social pariahs with no alternative except to become a drain on social services and a drag on the economy.
The compromise measure senators passed this year still places greater restrictions than many other states on in-state college tuition rates for undocumented students. To be eligible for the tuition break, students must have attended at least three years of high school here, and their parents must be able to document having paid state income taxes for the past three years (the tax requirement was softened in the House version of the legislation). Moreover, undocumented students who wish to pursue higher education cannot get the in-state tuition break at the state's four-year public colleges and universities unless they have first attended at least two years at one of the state's public community colleges. Since in-state tuition at community colleges is generally less than tuition at four-year institutions, the cost to taxpayers is correspondingly lower.
As a practical matter, many undocumented high school graduates would probably choose to attend community college anyway, at least initially, and especially if they needed remedial courses in some subjects. But the basic principle embodied in the Maryland law — that the state has a compelling interest in making higher education accessible to as many of its residents as possible — is sound. There's nothing to be gained from denying a young person the chance to improve his or her life.
Over the long run, the human capital represented by a well-educated workforce will benefit the state directly through higher tax revenues, lower crime and fewer demands on state services. The indirect benefits include a more diverse and vibrant community with a rich mix of cultures, cuisines and entrepreneurial opportunities. All those things are good for Maryland.
Despite all the demagogy over illegal immigration this year, Maryland's lawmakers wisely decided the benefits of educating its residents far outweighed the short-term term costs of tuition breaks for young people who, regardless of their immigration status, wouldn't even be in a position to apply to colleges unless they already had done right. They've figured out how to work hard, stay out of trouble and in general do everything we ask of people who seek to share in the American dream. They deserve a chance to succeed.