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OPINION

Mass. lawmakers should make in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants a priority

This is about tuition equity, not free tuition. Why wouldn’t Massachusetts want to open access to higher education for as many students as possible?

In 2015, Tufts University announced it would start charging undocumented immigrants the same as citizens. In this file photo, students and others participated in a rally led by the group Tufts United for Immigrant Justice on the Tufts campus.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

After voters earlier this month upheld a bill that allows immigrants without legal status to get driver’s licenses, Massachusetts lawmakers should focus next on passing legislation that would let undocumented immigrants who are state residents pay in-state tuition rates at the state’s public colleges and universities.

Massachusetts lawmakers have tried for nearly two decades to pass an in-state tuition measure to no avail, despite the clear arguments in favor of the measure: It’s about tuition equity, not free tuition. Why wouldn’t Massachusetts want to open access to higher education for as many students as possible?

“There was a tectonic shift in voter sentiment relative to undocumented immigrants in the Commonwealth from the early 2000s to the mid 2000s,” said Jeffrey Sánchez, a former state representative who’s now a senior policy adviser at Rasky Partners. Sánchez, who was part of the Legislature back then, said that the closest in-state tuition legislation came to passing was in 2005-2006. Then, in 2012, President Barack Obama enacted DACA, the program that allowed certain undocumented youth to work and get protection from deportation. Even after former president Donald Trump tried to end the program (whose fate is still snarled in the courts), political activism around the issue seem to fade locally.

Last year, state Representatives Adrian Madaro and Michael Moran cosponsored a tuition equity bill that would allow undocumented students to “qualify for in-state tuition rates at our state public colleges and universities if they have attended a Massachusetts high school for at least three years and graduated or if they have obtained the equivalent through an adult basic education program,” according to Madaro’s written testimony at the bill’s hearing in June 2021. “At a time when college enrollment is drastically down in the Commonwealth, this legislation would bring in additional revenue for our public higher education system through new student enrollment at virtually no cost.” (The bill was sent to study.)

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At the same hearing, University of Massachusetts Boston Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco testified in favor of the bill, saying that many undocumented students are already being educated in K-12 districts all over the state. They have worked hard to move on to college, Suárez-Orozco noted. But when they face a higher cost to attend college for being undocumented — because their parents, in many cases, brought them into the country illegally as children or overstayed their visas — they simply don’t enroll.

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According to Madaro’s testimony, a 2011 report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimated that “between 315 and 365 of the total undocumented students graduating from high school would actually enroll in one of the state’s public higher education institutions in the first year that they were eligible for in-state rates.” That was more than a decade ago; surely that number has gone up. The study also noted that the measure would likely result in $2.5 million in extra revenue.

To get an idea of the savings that tuition equity would represent for these undocumented students, in-state tuition at UMass Boston for 2022-23 is a little over $15,000 and roughly $36,000 for out-of-state students. Incidentally, at least one local private university lets students without an immigrant legal status pay tuition as a US citizen: Tufts University.

What is Massachusetts waiting for to enact this sensible reform? There’s no need to study tuition equity any longer. More than 20 states already have similar in-state tuition laws for undocumented students, including New York, Rhode Island, Texas, and California (which also allows them to apply for state financial aid). The cost to implement those laws, according to the National Immigration Law Center, has been minimal.

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Meanwhile, Arizona voters just approved Proposition 308, which will let any Arizona high school graduate who has lived in the state for two years pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities, regardless of their immigration status. More than 3,600 Arizona students without legal status could benefit from the policy annually. A 2020 fact sheet from the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition, citing estimates based on US Census data, said there are roughly 14,000 undocumented immigrants ages 3-17 enrolled in Massachusetts public schools and another 26,000 ages 18-24 who live in the state.

Given that the odds to get an immigration deal done in Congress during the lame-duck session — a deal that includes providing a path to legalize undocumented youth, the population that would benefit from tuition equity — are getting smaller and smaller, it will be up to the Massachusetts Legislature to prioritize undocumented students and allow them to be eligible for in-state tuition rates.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.