fb-pixel Skip to main content

In-state tuition isn’t an immigration issue

Massachusetts shouldn’t punish college applicants for being undocumented immigrants.

Graduates file down the aisle during the University of Massachusetts Boston commencement at TD Garden in Boston in 2021.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

For nearly 20 years, as one state after another has permitted residents who are undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, Massachusetts has refused to follow suit. Legislation that would allow kids graduating from a Bay State high school to qualify for in-state tuition regardless of immigration status has repeatedly been introduced on Beacon Hill — and repeatedly failed.

Now supporters are trying again.

Under a bill proposed by state Senator Brendan Crighton of Lynn, undocumented immigrants would be eligible for in-state tuition after attending a Massachusetts high school for at least three years and earning a diploma. The legislation would apply each year to at most a few hundred of the state’s 70,000 or so high school seniors.


In much of the nation, none of this raises eyebrows. In nearly two dozen states — from blue strongholds like California and New York to red bastions like Texas and Utah — kids who immigrated to the United States without proper documentation are eligible to pay in-state tuition at public colleges or universities on the same terms as other high school graduates.

There is no reason they shouldn’t be.

It isn’t shallow favoritism that explains why states charge resident students less in tuition and fees than their classmates from out of state. The policy reflects the consensus that making it easier for local students to pursue higher education locally is good for the students, good for their families, and good for the state.

To begin with, state residents pay the taxes that support the education system. A smaller tuition bill for state residents is one way to provide those taxpayers with what might be called a return on their investment.

Lower tuition at Massachusetts schools makes higher education more affordable for more Massachusetts families. That increases the number of those families that can send their kids to college, which in turn boosts the number of educated individuals in the state. A more educated population strengthens the state’s economy, since college graduates are not only more likely to be employed but also to earn higher incomes.


Perhaps the strongest argument in support of the in-state tuition break is that graduates of the Commonwealth’s public colleges and universities are more likely to remain in Massachusetts. According to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, 60 percent of graduates of Massachusetts public colleges were working in Massachusetts four years after graduation versus only 38 percent of private college graduates. At a time when Massachusetts is hemorrhaging residents faster than all but a handful of other states, it stands to reason that Beacon Hill should favor policies likely to keep more Bay Staters at home.

Note that none of these arguments have anything to do with immigration or citizenship. They apply with equal force to foreign-born Massachusetts residents and to those born locally. And it’s irrelevant whether those born abroad were brought to America by parents who had immigration visas or by parents who didn’t.

This country has been debating what to do about illegal immigration for a very long time. To my mind, the best solution is to abolish most of the restrictions that make any immigration illegal in the first place. You may disagree. But surely all of us can agree that what the University of Massachusetts or Bunker Hill Community College or any of the state’s other higher-ed institutions charge in tuition and fees is unrelated to immigration policy. No one is barred by their undocumented immigrant status from driving on Massachusetts highways, swimming at Massachusetts beaches, or doing research in Massachusetts libraries. Neither should they be barred from paying the tuition rate charged to other state residents.


Bear in mind that, with or without green cards, immigrants who live in Massachusetts pay state and local taxes — in 2017, those payments totaled almost $185 million. Many undocumented high school graduates have lived in Massachusetts since they were babies or toddlers, and are as acculturated into American life as their US-born classmates. Making it harder or more expensive for them to attend college accomplishes nothing for them or for Massachusetts. Conversely, extending to them the same financial consideration extended to any resident who wants to attend a public college or university makes their success more likely. Why wouldn’t Massachusetts want its young residents to be as successful and educated as possible?

Beacon Hill may not be able to do much about America’s endless feud over immigration. But it can at least stop inflicting collateral damage on undocumented Massachusetts students. In-state tuition should be for in-state residents, regardless of how they got here.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit https://bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.