Imagine you are the child of hard-working parents. You participate in school activities, achieve academic distinction and contribute to your local community. Your dream is to continue your education by going to college. But through a simple twist of fate, you are undocumented. Under current Oregon law, you must pay out-of-state tuition regardless of how long you have attended school in Oregon. With out-of-state fees as much as three times the cost of in-state tuition, college is out of the question.
On March 29, 2011, the Oregon State Senate voted to pass Senate Bill 742 (Tuition Equity), bipartisan legislation that will grant in-state tuition to students regardless of their immigration status. Under the bill, students must attend school in the U.S. for at least five years, attend school in Oregon for at least three concurrent years and graduate from an Oregon high school. The bill now moves on to the State House for debate and final vote.
Rick (not his real name), a student at Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC), offers insight into why this measure is so important. Rick and his mother immigrated to Oregon when he was 12. He dreams of attending a four-year school once he has completed his two years at MHCC. He is uncertain how he will manage with costs so high. For now, Rick intends to take one class at a time. For many of Rick's friends, however, this is not the case. As Rick said, "A lot of friends in high school just give up. They know they won't be able to afford an education. If there was some kind of hope, they would be more encouraged to complete high school."
A key argument against Tuition Equity is that granting in-state tuition to undocumented students equates to a subsidy that would cost the state unjustified expense. The Tuition Equity bill would not provide funding. Instead, it would ensure that if students meet the requirements for acceptance, they would pay tuition comparable to other residents. The bill would merely provide equal access. Many experts have indicated that the Tuition Equity bill would, in fact, increase the revenue for state universities, since it would open enrollment to a larger group of students.
There is also concern that granting tuition equity would cause our public universities to be inundated with undocumented students and make admission for legal residents more restrictive. According to the National Immigration Law Center, the experience of states that have already passed similar measures indicates this is not the case. What does happen, however, is that the percentage of local students pursuing college degrees increases. This is good for the state.
We long ago recognized the right to equal access to K-12 students regardless of immigration status (Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 1982). Tuition Equity simply extends this access by making higher education more accessible to undocumented students. Oregon's employment base stands to become better educated and more competitive, our universities benefit through increased revenues and our overall tax base increases due to increased earning potential. It is now our turn to follow the lead of the 10 states which have already enacted similar legislation.
Last but not least, providing tuition equity is simply the right thing to do. The children of Oregon's undocumented residents are not here out of choice. For many, this is the only home they have ever known. They are invested in our society and our lives. The hundreds of students who made their voices known as the Senate debated the Tuition Equity bill were not asking for a handout. They were merely asking for an opportunity to continue their education so they can move a little closer to fulfilling their dreams and contributing to the state they call home -- in other words, to help us all become a little better off.
Please let your legislators know that you support the Tuition Equity bill. Ask them to vote "yes" when it comes time for them to make their voices heard on this important legislation.
John J. "Ski" Sygielski is president of Mt. Hood Community College which enrolls more than 33,000 students each year and is the fourth largest of 17 community colleges in Oregon. He is also chairman of the board for the American Association of Community Colleges.