Examining In-State College Tuition Policies for Undocumented Immigrants in the United States

Niloofar Asgari, MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

In the United States, higher education is widely regarded as the best investment for long-term fulfillment and success. A more educated populace helps the U.S. withstand economic downturns, keep unemployment rates low, and engage with others on a global scale. Additionally, pursuing higher education can cultivate personal fulfillment that students can appreciate long after they graduate. However, accessing these benefits can be challenging due to the high financial cost of higher education in America. As a result of the high financial cost, prospective students have started turning to a variety of resources to pay for college or university. The resources that people have access to depend on a multitude of factors, such as income level, college preparedness, zip code, and immigration and citizenship status.

Obtaining federal aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has several requirements. To receive federal loans or grants through the FAFSA, recipients must be U.S. nationals, permanent residents, or “eligible non-citizens.” The FAFSA’s website defines “eligible non-citizens” as individuals who meet specific criteria, reside in the United States for a temporary purpose, and intend to become U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Eligible non-citizens include I-94 recipients categorized as refugees, asylum granted, Cuban-Haitian Entrants, Conditional Entrants (if issued before April 1, 1980), and Parolees. It also includes T-Visa recipients and “Battered Immigrants-Qualified Aliens” who have status under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Additionally, recipients must also demonstrate financial need, have a valid Social Security number, prove that they are qualified to obtain an education, enroll at least half-time, and maintain satisfactory academic progress. In addition to federal loans and grants, federal aid recipients also have access to private and institutional scholarships, private loans, and earnings that help pay for school.

International students who study in America with F-1, F-2, J-1, or J-2 visas do not qualify for U.S. federal financial aid. However, these students can rely on Fulbright scholarships and funding directly from schools themselves. Some international students receive familial support and financial assistance from their home countries. 

However, undocumented immigrants pursuing higher education in the U.S. are not eligible for federal financial aid and, in many cases, cannot seek funding from their countries of birth or through programs dedicated to international students. While undocumented immigrants do have access to scholarships from universities and non-profits, these funding sources are often competitive, which results in many immigrants using extra income from their jobs to cover part or all of their costs. In light of the social and financial difficulties that especially affect the undocumented population, some states have provided mechanisms that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, which is often less expensive than out-of-state and international tuition rates. 

States that Have Implemented In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants

Every state and university system that grants in-state tuition rates to undocumented students uses a range of eligibility criteria. In most jurisdictions, students typically need to graduate from state high schools, show proof of acceptance from a state college or university, and promise to apply for legal status as soon as they are eligible. Many immigrant students have DACA status under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows them to legally work in the U.S. and temporarily protects them from deportation

Seventeen states grant in-state tuition rates through state legislation: CaliforniaColoradoConnecticutFloridaIllinoisKansasMarylandMinnesotaNebraskaNew JerseyNew MexicoNew YorkOregonTexasUtahVirginia, and Washington. Additionally, HawaiiMaineMichiganArkansasKentucky, and Rhode Island state university systems offer in-state tuition through decisions made by each state’s Board of Regents. Some states, such as Indiana, Arizona, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri, specifically prohibit granting undocumented immigrants in-state tuition or allowing undocumented students to enroll altogether.

Some jurisdictions offering in-state tuition even allow students to obtain financial aid through loans or scholarships. The states that allow undocumented students to get state-funded financial aid include CaliforniaMinnesotaNew YorkTexasNew MexicoNew JerseyMarylandOregon, and Washington. Some states that do not offer state-funded financial aid provide waivers or allow students to apply for institutional awards or private scholarship funds

Policy Debates Surrounding In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants

 When examining the debate between supporters and opponents of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, it is important to understand how each side frames its argument. To an extent, this debate is informed by disagreements on legislative intent and interpretation of laws like the federal Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996. Section 505 of the act prohibits states from providing a postsecondary education benefit to an undocumented immigrant unless any citizen or national was eligible for such benefits. The act does not explicitly prohibit states from charging in-state tuition rates, which results in some states granting in-state tuition rates and other states choosing to charge international rates or restrict enrollment from undocumented students altogether. The conflicting actions and policy positions based on this act are part of the reason in-state tuition policies as set by higher education administrators and state legislators exist in the first place. 

Supporters of in-state tuition for undocumented students frame their argument around the potential economic benefits of educating undocumented immigrants and situational circumstances affecting undocumented students and their families. In contrast, opponents of in-state tuition argue that in-state tuition policies encourage and reward those who entered illegally or overstayed their visas.

Supporters who examine the economic benefits say that in-state tuition can decrease social inequality and bring positive economic outcomes for states. Since both undocumented and documented Americans grew up in the United States and see this country as their home, in-state tuition rates can be seen as a small but significant institutional equalizer that allows more Americans to live fulfilling lives in their country. Allowing undocumented immigrants to pursue higher education at in-state rates has the potential to contribute positively to a state’s economy. For students with DACA status, in-state tuition can further strengthen the benefits researchers have observed from the DACA program.

Many supporters say that it is unfair that undocumented children whose parents brought them to America at a young age do not have access to higher education because of the choices their parents made. While this argument may compel policymakers and public administrators to act in support of undocumented students, it does not take into account the reasons parents may immigrate in the first place. This framework requires elevating certain undocumented people over others by differentiating between “good” and “bad” immigrants.

 Opponents of in-state tuition are concerned that in-state tuition for undocumented students “provides incentives for people to immigrate illegally to the U.S., or to remain in the U.S. after visas have expired.” In response to this notion, immigration experts and advocates also mention that there often is not a “line” that every undocumented immigrant can wait in and that plenty of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. initially came with visas that eventually expired.

Opponents also say that granting in-state tuition will financially impact universities and that increasing numbers of undocumented students at school will decrease the opportunities available for documented students. Some supporters of in-state tuition have responded to this argument by mentioning that undocumented students make up a small proportion of students pursuing higher education in the U.S., even in states with large immigrant communities like Texas. The low proportion of undocumented students in the U.S. higher education system relative to the number of documented students is cited as evidence that undocumented students do not decrease available opportunities for documented students. 

Policy Implications

While in-state tuition policies alone do not fully remedy unequal education access among documented and undocumented students, in-state tuition policies are a useful step in expanding higher education access and social equality for undocumented students and their communities. These policies encourage documented students to stay in their home states, cultivate a sense of societal belonging, and help students feel like they can lead successful lives in the place they call home

Higher education access and affordability affect both undocumented and documented students in similar and different ways. The high price of a four-year college degree at a public, in-state school may be unaffordable for documented and undocumented students who do not successfully secure scholarships, are from low-income backgrounds, and have other personal circumstances preventing them from pursuing a degree. Even with in-state tuition rising beyond what many families can afford, some students will either skip college altogether, delay going until enough money has been saved, or continue to work or apply for non-government scholarships from either colleges, non-profits, or foundations. Considering that many students, regardless of immigration status, can struggle to pay in-state tuition prices, issues surrounding higher education affordability are deeper than a specific rate that public colleges and universities charge certain groups of people. This issue is partly why comprehensive immigration reformstudent loan forgiveness, and tuition-free college are appealing to Americans.

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