Network of colleges calls to aid illegal immigrant students

Tuesday, April 21, 2009 | 10:35 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — Wading into the politically charged immigration debate, a group of colleges and universities is urging Congress to give illegal immigrants tuition aid and a path to citizenship in light of efforts in several states to block them.

The College Board, made up of 5,000 schools and best known for its SAT college admission tests, released a report Tuesday that cites a need for federal legislation that would open up in-state college tuition, financial aid and legal status to many illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Speaking publicly on the issue for the first time, the board is making its push after states in recent years have moved to bar illegal immigrants from paying in-state tuition and, in some cases, enrolling in their public colleges. It also comes as opponents are warning that immigration reform now could reduce already-scarce jobs and college enrollment slots in the ailing economy.

"This is a new area for us, but it was an easy call," said Thomas W. Rudin, a senior vice president for the College Board.

He noted the contradiction in which illegal immigrants who are legally entitled to a K-12 public education suddenly hit barriers when applying to college, even when many are "honor roll students, athletes, class presidents and valedictorians."

"We absolutely believe it's important for opening up economic opportunities," Rudin said.

Under House and Senate bills known as the Dream Act, illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. as children — defined as age 15 and under — and have lived here for five years could apply to the Homeland Security Department for conditional legal status after graduating from high school.

Such legal status would make the immigrants eligible for in-state college tuition rates and some forms of federal financial aid. Then, if they attend college or participate in military service for at least two years, the immigrants would qualify for permanent legal residency and ultimately citizenship.

The legislation, which has been introduced in various forms since 2001, comes as President Barack Obama is preparing to address the contentious issue of immigration reform later this year. The Dream Act has previously passed the Senate but failed to become law as it was folded into proposals for more comprehensive reform.

"The College Board is forgetting which side their bread is buttered: How can they purport to represent the interest of students while supporting legislation that promotes more competition from illegal aliens?" said Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to restrict immigration.

"It's a massive amnesty effort being laid for this fall," Dane said. "Since many of these illegal aliens and their families are overwhelmingly on the lower end of the economic scale, they're going to take the lion's share of need-based financial aid."

Among the College Board's findings:

  • About 360,000 illegal immigrants who have a high school degree could qualify for the tuition aid. Another 715,000 immigrants between the ages of 5 and 17 would also benefit if they are motivated to finish high school and pursue a college degree.
  • Roughly 10 states that offer tuition aid to illegal immigrants generally saw increased college revenue by enrolling these additional students, rather than financial burdens caused by an influx of immigrants paying cheaper tuition.
  • Only a fraction of the 65,000 illegal immigrants who graduate from high school each year go to college. Their ability to receive a higher education and move into better-paying jobs would help the U.S. economy in the form of increased tax revenue and consumer spending.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that illegal immigrants are entitled to a K-12 public education, but federal law is silent as to their college rights. As a result, states have been divided over providing benefits, and in many cases leave it up to individual colleges to decide.

South Carolina bans illegal immigrants from enrolling at any of its public colleges, and Alabama blocks them from its two-year colleges. Missouri and Virginia are also considering laws that deny enrollment.

At least four states — Georgia, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona — prohibit illegal immigrants from paying in-state tuition rates.

The 10 states that offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants are California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington. New Jersey is now reviewing whether to offer in-state tuition, while California is considering whether to allow immigrants to compete for financial aid.

The 2006 Nebraska law allows illegal immigrants who graduated from high school in Nebraska and who are pursuing or promise to pursue legal status to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.

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