After years of debate without action, the U.S. Senate finally passed bipartisan immigration legislation on June 27, ironically the same day the New Jersey Senate once again stalled a bill to allow undocumented students to take advantage of in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. It’s now been a full decade since in-state tuition legislation was first introduced in New Jersey – a decade of lost opportunities for the state’s undocumented students and its economy. After ten years, the bill still has not made it to the Senate or Assembly floor for full vote. What’s the deal?
New Jersey is a magnet for immigrants, ranking third after California and New York with the highest percentage of foreign-born population. Both of those states – and 13 others – understand the importance of investing in striving undocumented students by granting in-state tuition. Yet New Jersey’s leaders do not seem to. It is a shame that conservative red states like Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska are ahead of the game in having progressive legislation for immigrants. New Jersey has the second highest share of undocumented population and undocumented workforce among the 35 states without in-state tuition. By continuing to ignore this segment of its population New Jersey increases the risk of creating a permanent immigrant underclass and continue a drag on the state’s economy. By removing a major financial barrier to college, New Jersey could instead help integrate its immigrant population while invigorating the economy.
For some reason the debate on investing in undocumented students is stuck on higher education. But the reality is New Jersey already provides very generous support of undocumented students by funding public schools, particularly in low-income districts with high immigrant populations. In fact, New Jersey leads the nation in the investment it makes in such districts – a big reason why the state has the second best-performing public schools in the nation.
Let’s consider the investment made in two New Jersey children who came to the state from abroad before starting school. One lives in Union City, the other in Passaic (check the notes at the bottom of this post for the demographics of both cities and school districts). Both are undocumented. By the time these two children graduate from high school, New Jersey will have invested about a quarter of a million dollars in educating each of these children (the average per student is $246,181 in Union City and $241,644 in Passaic).
Yet when it comes to the next – and increasingly essential – step up the education ladder, New Jersey suddenly becomes punitive and sets tuition rates at out-of-state levels that make attending college unaffordable for these students.
If our Union City student chooses to go to Hudson County College, (s)he will be asked to pay about double the tuition of her graduating classmates who have legal resident status. In Passaic, the rates are slightly less disparate, but our undocumented student will still face tuition bills that are about one-and-a-half times higher than his or her classmates. If either student wanted to aim for a four-year college like William Paterson University, they would be greeted with news that their tuition rates are 1.75 times higher than those of their neighbors.
This makes no sense educationally, economically or morally. New Jerseyans can’t afford to wait another semester without tuition equity. The legislature is set to come back during the summer to finish other business – it needs to add this to the top of its list, put politics aside and move tuition equity forward.
The Passaic school district is composed of 91 percent Latino students in pre-k to 12th grade, according to the Education Law Center. This former Abbott District invests $18,588 per pupil each year; 26 percent of its student population is enrolled in limited English programs and 86 percent receive free or reduced lunch. The city’s population is 45-percent foreign born – of which 27 percent are naturalized citizens, according to the U.S. Census. In addition, 95 percent of Passaic’s foreign-born children – and 77 percent of its foreign-born adults – are not U.S. citizens. An estimated 38 percent of people living in Passaic are not enrolled in school and do not have a high school diploma.
The Union City school district is composed of 94 percent Latino students, according to the Education Law Center. Union City invests $18,937 per pupil each year; 29 percent of its students participated in limited-English programs and 92 percent receive free or reduced lunch. The city’s foreign-born population is 58-percent – of which 37 percent are naturalized citizens, according to the U.S. Census. In addition, 84 percent of Union City’s foreign-born children – and 60 percent of its foreign-born adults – are not U.S. citizens. An estimated 34 percent of people living in Union City are not enrolled in school and have less than a high school diploma.
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