Texas Governor Rick Perry, a candidate in the Republican presidential primaries, has been taking a lot of conservative heat lately over his support for the “Texas DREAM Act.” That bill, which Perry signed into law in 2001, allows young unauthorized Texans who came to this country as children to qualify for in-state tuition in state colleges and universities in the same way as their lawfully present peers. Perry says that supporting the bill was an act of mercy towards unauthorized youth who had no say in the decision of their parents to come to the United States without permission. He also says that it is in the best interest of the state to educate unauthorized children rather than consigning them to the margins of society.

Perry’s opponents disagree. They mischaracterize in-state tuition for unauthorized immigrants, claiming that it comes at the expense of native-born students. Fellow presidential contender Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, has claimed that the Texas bill gave every unauthorized student who benefitted from it an unfair in-state tuition “discount” of nearly $100,000 over the course of four years spent at the University of Texas.

Mr. Romney could use a little schooling on the issue of in-state tuition laws. Specifically, there are four important points to remember:

  • Unauthorized immigrants who want to go to an in-state college are required to pay the out-of-state or international-student tuition rates, which can be considerably higher than the in-state rate. Mitt Romney mischaracterizes an in-state tuition law as an unfair advantage given to unauthorized students who have actually lived in the state for years and acquired their education there. In reality, the law only gives those who qualify the option of paying in-state tuition rates to attend in-state colleges or universities (and, in some cases, only community colleges).
  • The number of students who are eligible for and choose to utilize the tuition benefit open to them is very low. In the case of Texas, only 9,062 students actually benefited from the Texas DREAM Act in fall 2007. This amounted to eight-tenths of one percent of all students in the state’s public colleges and universities.
  • Bills granting in-state tuition to qualified unauthorized students are not a fiscal burden. They draw tuition-paying students into the educational system who otherwise would not be there. According to fiscal notes from the state legislatures of Colorado and California, for instance, in-state tuition bills are a fiscal wash. That is, the amount of new revenue generated from having more students enrolled in colleges and universities, and paying in-state tuition, offsets the loss of revenue from having fewer students paying higher, non-resident tuition rates.
  • In-state tuition for unauthorized youth encourages more students to finish high school and get a higher education. In a report released earlier this year, the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University found that “in-state tuition is correlated with a 14% decrease in high school dropouts among non-citizen Latinos.” Moreover, “in-state tuition results in a 31% increase in non-citizen enrollment in institutes of higher education.” And Texas could use a few more college graduates. A report from the Lumina Foundation for Education found that “33 percent of the state’s 12.6 million working-age adults (25-64 years old) hold at least a two-year degree, according to 2008 Census data.” That is significantly lower than the national average of 37.9 percent.

In-state tuition bills like the Texas DREAM Act are not a fiscal burden on the state treasury, do not harm native-born students, and do not provide an unfair advantage to the small number of unauthorized students who qualify.

It is not only Rick Perry who recognizes the wisdom of educating unauthorized students rather than punishing them. In-state tuition laws have been implemented in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington. The experience of these states is that in-state tuition laws have not drained state budgets and have not crowded out native-born students who want to attend college.

Providing in-state tuition is the government’s recognition that kids who have already been educated in the state should be able to complete that education. The government’s motivation is simple: better-educated youth have the potential to become more productive contributors to the state’s economy. Politicians who mischaracterize in-state tuition as  giving an unfair advantage to unauthorized students either misunderstand the facts or don’t care about facts in the first place.

Photo by IowaPolitics.com.