MASSACHUSETTS PRIDES itself on a long history of protecting people at the margins of society. But in one important area — supporting the college aspirations of undocumented students — we lag behind 20 states, including Republican strongholds like Texas.
Other states provide access to in-state tuition, state financial aid, or both. Without such help, undocumented students have little hope of attending college. Indeed two-thirds of all college students in the United States rely on some form of financial aid, and many take advantage of in-state rates that cut tuition costs in half.
This fall, the situation in Massachusetts could finally change.
The Legislature is considering a bill to allow access to both in-state tuition and state financial aid to undocumented students who have completed at least three years of high school in the state and have graduated.
The bill would support the dreams of students such as “Maria’’ — a rising senior and honors student at Boston’s John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science, one of three city exam schools. She moved here from Brazil when she was 7 and dreams of studying biomedicine. She works, but without financial aid, college is out of reach.
The law could also support students like “Andres.’’ He graduated as an AP and honors student from Boston Latin School but had to turn down offers from Tufts, Brandeis, UMass Boston, and Brown because he couldn’t afford tuition. He came here from Colombia when he was 5.
Some have concerns about the proposed law. It’s important to address these questions squarely.
Wouldn’t it be unfair for state revenues to support undocumented students, when their families don’t pay taxes? In fact, undocumented state residents do pay taxes. On average, they pay 80 percent as much of state and local taxes as citizens with similar incomes, according to data from the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy. So, while there is a gap, it is rather small. In addition, the law would require student recipients to pay taxes in full.
Won’t undocumented students take spots from legal residents? State colleges are eager for more academically competitive students, and many say they have room to teach them.
Won’t undocumented students burden state colleges? To the contrary, the presidents of all nine state universities have endorsed the bill. They emphasize that the bill provides equal opportunity, not automatic acceptance: all students must still prove academic merit. They also cite a 2014 report by the Department of Higher Education warning of an impending skills gap and the need for some 60,000 additional college-educated employees within 10 years. Additionally, studies say the law will increase college revenues with tuition from qualified students who cannot currently attend.
Even with college degrees, won’t undocumented students be unable to work legally? While undocumented students do not yet have a path to citizenship, since 2012, many can obtain a two-year renewable work permit under the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Most students to benefit from this law would be able to work legally.
Won’t state assistance encourage undocumented families to flock to Massachusetts? None of the 20 states with similar programs, including neighboring New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, have experienced such mass migrations.
From a purely economic standpoint, Massachusetts has much to gain from the talents and passions of these young people. College degree holders contribute more financially to the community and state — and they are less likely to need or require social welfare assistance. Moreover, since a 1982 Supreme Court decision, states have been obliged to finance the K-12 education of undocumented students. It is economically foolish not to capitalize on our investment in these children.
But, equally important, is basic fairness. Many undocumented students came here at a young age, and the United States is the only place they call home.
The growing support for the bill is promising. Many public and private institutions are speaking out for it. Tufts University recently announced it would actively recruit and financially support undocumented students.
Massachusetts’ undocumented students dream big and are passionate about education. They ask us only for the opportunity to learn. We should give them that chance.
Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer living in the Boston area.