Students fear repeal of the in-state tuition perk

Published: Monday, Jan. 29 2007 12:00 a.m. MST

An undocumented student at the University of Utah enters the Marriott Library. About 60 undocumented students attend the U.

August Miller, Deseret Morning News

Claudia doesn't know Mexico's national anthem. She grew up saying the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.

She didn't know she was undocumented until her parents had to explain to her why she couldn't get on an airplane, as her friends could.

"I thought it was the end of the world," said the University of Utah student, who hasn't lived in Mexico since she was 6 years old.

Claudia is now studying engineering at the U. while a debate rages at the Utah Legislature over whether undocumented students like her should have to pay out-of-state tuition rates to get a college degree.

Higher-education leaders fear a repeal of in-state tuition for undocumented students will not only shut university doors in the future to students such as Claudia, but to U.S.-citizen, refugee and legal-immigrant minority students throughout the state.

Although a repeal would only affect a few hundred undocumented students and cost about $200,000 in lost tuition dollars, education leaders say that's nothing compared to the price of sending a negative message to minority students.

"It may send a message to all minority students that the public higher-education system is not the most welcoming. It creates an atmosphere where students who are Hispanic or of other ethnic status become — at best, resentful — and at worst, fearful," said David Doty, assistant commissioner of higher education in Utah.

Bad timing

HB224 would repeal a 2002 law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition if they have attended a Utah high school for at least three years and graduated, or the equivalent. It would grandfather in current students but bar future undocumented students. The measure has cleared a House committee and is likely to see floor debate this week.

The repeal's proponents say the waiver for undocumented students isn't fair to those on student visas or out-of-state students who must pay the higher rate. They add that undocumented students can't work legally after they graduate.

While Utah's attorney general says the law is sound, an out-of-state attorney, Kris Kobach, who is involved in pending litigation over similar laws in other states, disagrees.

"You have Utah rewarding someone who violates federal law while disadvantaging an alien who follows federal law," Kobach recently told a House committee. "It's creating an incentive to break federal law."

Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, is attempting to repeal the law for the fourth time. He said he's hopeful for a federal solution, but until that happens the state is only sending false hope to students who will find themselves with degrees but unemployable.

But Doty said the repeal's negative message couldn't come at a worse time, with the state facing dipping university enrollments in the next 10 years unless it can tap into the growing minority population that historically has lower levels of college attendance.

"We want to keep sending the message of hope and opportunity, not of despair and discouragement, which I think a repeal of this bill may send," Doty said.

Requiring undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition — nearly three times as much as in-state rates — could make those minority groups feel like Utah "is just not a place where the doors are open," he said.

Michael Young, president of the University of Utah, called a repeal of the in-state tuition allowance a "genuine tragedy" for the state that would send a clear message to all minority students that the "state doesn't want us in college."

In addition, Young added, the students don't cost the state any extra money because university funding is not based on enrollment growth. Instead, the state will lose money by missing an opportunity to educate a growing population of undocumented students, he said.