In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants
At least eighteen states and the District of Columbia offer in-state tuition, by law, to undocumented immigrants who meet specific criteria. These laws are often referred to as ‘tuition equality laws.’ These states include:
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
Seven state university systems offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, who otherwise qualify; these states include:
- University of Hawaii Board of Regents
- Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education
- University of Maine Board of Trustees (to specific undocumented individuals)
Delaware Technical Community College & The University of Delaware provide for undocumented residents to be eligible for in-state tuition.
Typically, to qualify for in-state tuition, applicants must have:
- Attended high school in that state for a prescribed number of years; and
- Graduated from a high school in that state.
Some states require:
- A commitment to apply for lawful status as soon as possible.
Many states offer financial aid to students, regardless of immigration status, including:
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- District of Columbia
Many individual university systems, such as the University of Hawaii system, offers financial aid to undocumented students.
Six states explicitly bar undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition, including:
- New Hampshire
- South Carolina
The vast majority of undocumented immigrants reside in a state with ‘tuition equity laws.’
Public Policy & Social Impact of In-State Tuition Laws
In-State tuition laws benefiting undocumented students are primarily aimed at assisting students who were brought to the United States by their parents at a young age. Many of these students, although not born in the U.S., grew up in the United States, attended elementary and high school in the United States, and call the U.S. home. Additionally, many of these students are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
The availability of higher education to these students varies widely across the country, and there are a variety of different programs that states employ to assist these students financially. Below are a few of the different approaches taken by various states and universities across the country:
- Some states and university systems offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants;
- Some only offer in-state tuition to DACA recipients;
- A few allow undocumented students to apply for financial aid;
- Some only allow DACA recipients to apply for financial aid;
- Several states and public universities allow for private funding to offset the costs of school;
- Some states explicitly bar undocumented immigrants from in-state tuition;
- Some states bar undocumented immigrants from attending school at all.
Some 76% of DACA recipients reside in states that offer in-state tuition.
Undocumented immigrants pay sales tax, property tax, income tax, and other municipal taxes; giving this small group of people access to in-state tuition increases the number of people who graduate high school and pursue a college degree.
Fairness to Undocumented Youth
Many undocumented youths have little to no recollection of their birth countries and only realize that they are not United States citizens when they wish to take driver’s education in high school, or when they are applying to college. Many of these students are hardworking and goal-oriented and do very well in school. Many of these students spend their entire lives living in one state and one city.
Most of these students would be unable to attend college or university without in-state tuition, as the cost of higher education is prohibitively expensive. Many of these students come from low-income households. Most of these students will be ineligible for FAFSA, and many will have to work full-time during college, simply to be able to afford in-state tuition. Without access to in-state tuition rates, many undocumented students would be unable to pursue associates, bachelor’s, or master’s degrees.
Benefits to the States
Allowing undocumented students to avail themselves of in-state tuition generates revenue for state university systems. These are people who likely would be unable to attend school, but for the in-state tuition. Alternatively, they may attend community college for two years. In-state tuition is not free tuition-it is tuition that the state likely would not receive, if it did not permit undocumented individuals to attend at the in-state rate.
Additionally, when these youth graduate with associates or bachelor’s degrees, they will continue to contribute to society through paying property, income, and sales taxes. Educating our country’s youth, documented or not, benefits society as a whole. People who have higher degrees are less likely to need social services, are less likely to commit crimes, and are more likely to participate in the community.
Why Don’t Undocumented Students Become Documented?
Most undocumented individuals would apply for a green card if they were eligible for one; however, the overwhelming majority are not eligible. The path to a green card can be an arduous and complex one. Most undocumented immigrants are only eligible for a green card based on very narrow familial relationships. Because many of these students are not familiar with their country of origin, they cannot risk applying for a green card and risk deportation. Additionally, most immigrants would not file a frivolous application for a green card, just so that they could obtain a temporary benefit-thus many never apply.
What Does Federal Law Say About In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants?
Effective on July 1, 1998, §507 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, prescribes that “an alien who is not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible on the basis of residence within a State for any postsecondary education benefit unless a citizen or national of the United States is eligible for such benefit. Without regard to whether the citizen or national is such a resident.”
Federal law does not prohibit extending in-state tuition to undocumented students; it merely states that in-state tuition can be extended to undocumented individuals so long as it is extended to U.S. citizens and nationals as well. The law states that if states provide residency-based benefits to undocumented immigrants, they must extend those same benefits to nonresidents in similar situations. Currently, all state’ tuition equity laws’ comply with federal law.
Fairness to United States Citizens Who Wish to Attend College or University
In-state tuition does not affect the application admissions process. Undocumented applicants to college are judged on the same criteria as their documented counterparts: their academic rigor, extra-curricular involvement, and standardized test scores, among others. Additionally, the number of undocumented students applying to college and university is small, even in states with large immigrant populations. Take Texas, for example, in 2016, the Texas University system had 25,151 undocumented students avail themselves of the in-state tuition rates; this represented approximately 1.5% of students enrolled at Texas state institutions.
What About the DREAM Act?
The DREAM Act is proposed legislation, initially introduced in 2001, and which has seen upwards of ten iterations. The DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship (through lawful permanent residency) for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
The 2011 DREAM Act sought to eliminate the provision of federal law requiring states to provide in-state tuition to nonresidents if they offer the same to undocumented immigrants. This provision discourages many states from offering in-state tuition to undocumented students. However, the Act did not require that states provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, only that they would no longer face a penalty for doing so. So, while the DREAM Act is a good start for ‘tuition equality’ the states would still have a lot of work to do in equalizing tuition for all residents.
The 2019 version of the bill provided that those individuals who were already DACA recipients could be ‘fast-tracked’ to conditional residents. If this were to occur, it would open the door to in-state tuition, financial aid, and grants for thousands of students.