The state Board of Higher Education voted Tuesday to clear the way for immigrant students with limited legal status in the United States to be eligible for a state merit scholarship for the first time.
The board voted, 10-0, with one member abstaining, to allow such students to claim the John and Abigail Adams scholarships, which reward public high school students with the top scores on state exams. The scholarships provide up to eight semesters of free tuition at state colleges and universities.
The policy takes effect in January. It passed without debate at the board’s meeting in Bristol Community College in Fall River, officials said.
Immigrant leaders cheered the vote, saying even the modest scholarships — tuition is far less than fees at state colleges and universities — would be a major boost for students who do not qualify for state or federal financial aid. They said many top students with limited legal status must attend college part-time or drop out.
“It’s a huge victory,” said Carlos Rojas Alvarez, campaign coordinator for the Student Immigrant Movement. “Now we get to benefit from the hard work that a lot of us put into high school.”
The move was backed by Republicans and Democrats alike. Board member Sheila Harrity abstained to avoid a potential conflict of interest because her daughter is a high school senior.
To qualify for the Adams scholarships, students must score at the highest level, advanced, on one of three state high school exams — English, math or science — and score at proficient or higher on the remaining two tests. They also must score in the top 25 percent of their district’s class on all three tests combined. The savings are modest: Tuition at the flagship University of Massachusetts Amherst costs about $857 a semester
Critics say the board’s new policy will drain taxpayer money from colleges and universities and further cement the status of immigrants whose families may have brought them here illegally.
Others say the new board policy takes into account that there are varying forms of legal status in the United States. For instance, in 2012 President Obama granted temporary legal residency to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children. These students have qualified for in-state tuition, but up till now had not been eligible for the scholarships.
Before the policy change, only immigrants who were naturalized citizens or had certain forms of legal residency were eligible for the Adams scholarships.
The board initiated the policy because of a lawsuit filed in March by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Foley Hoag on behalf of four immigrant students with varying legal statuses.