Another Year of Lost Opportunities for New Jersey’s Undocumented Students

This is the time of year when traffic jams up around college dorms as first-time students move in to start the academic year. In New Jersey, thousands of undocumented high school graduates must watch from the sidelines as their chance to afford college was denied by the inaction of New Jersey’s political leadership.

For ten years, legislators have failed to act on legislation that would charge undocumented students the same tuition as their classmates at public colleges. So far, 2013 looks to continue the trend.

Turns out that 2003 was the same year that deeply red Oklahoma introduced its bill for both in-state tuition rates and access to state grants. The difference? It passed in Oklahoma. Even when the Oklahoma legislature took up a viciously anti-immigrant bill in 2007, it held onto its tuition and financial aid policies.

New Jersey is Squandering an Investment

It’s no surprise that families that rely on under-the-table cash wages in predominantly in low-skill jobs are barely able to survive in high-cost New Jersey. Before the Great Recession, the average annual household income of America’s undocumented immigrants was estimated at $36,000 – more than a quarter less than U.S. born households (average of $50,000). The chances that they have salted away enough savings to put one of their children through college are near zero, particularly when charged the out-of-state rate of $27,523 for one year at Rutgers-New Brunswick, which is almost their entire household income. Passage of the tuition equity bill would cut that cost in half ($13,499 without room and board). Perhaps more importantly, it would bring annual tuitions at many county colleges – a gateway to higher education for low-income New Jerseyans – under $2,000 for undocumented students.

Meanwhile, in red Oklahoma, their undocumented students can attend the University of Oklahoma for $8,915, instead of the $21,105 charged to out-of-staters, and be eligible for state financial aid.

This goes beyond the issue of blaming children who had no choice about coming to New Jersey. If they arrived in time for kindergarten, state and local taxpayers have invested, on average, about $250,000 to educate each of them. They did their part; they persisted and graduated from high school. Now many of them want to improve their futures by attending and graduating from college. But New Jersey continues to slam the door on their prospects by doubling their costs and putting college out of range.

States with tuition equity laws enroll a higher percentage of undocumented high school graduates states without them, and have seen practically no impact on attendance rates for citizens and legal residents. In other words, the influx of undocumented students doesn’t shut other students out, as opponents in the legislature have claimed.

If Not Now, When?

President Obama’s action extending “deferred action” against deportation to some unauthorized young adults gives New Jersey another reason to enact tuition equity this year. So does the bipartisan passage by the U.S. Senate of a bill that grants temporary legal status of at least six years to unauthorized residents. And if New Jersey’s politicians need added incentives, they can take comfort in polling that finds 80 percent of New Jerseyans – including a majority of independents and Republicans – approve of the president’s deferred action plan.

Forty percent of New Jerseyans are first or second-generation Americans. Only California and New York claim a higher percentage of foreign-born residents. New Jersey benefits enormously from the economic contributions – jobs, economic activity and taxes – that risk-taking, entrepreneurial immigrants make to the state.

“Waste, fraud and abuse” are frequently condemned by politicians. In its own way, the failure to enact tuition equity is a perfect example of these sins. New Jersey “wastes” its investment of upwards of $250,000 in educating undocumented students through high school. The “fraud” comes in preaching to these same students the need to finish high school to improve their prospects in life. The “abuse” is in the combination of investing and urging only to then shut them out from the higher education that pays dividends for the college graduate and American society. The legislature and governor can repair the damage going forward by passing and signing the tuition equity bill in the lame duck session.

Otherwise, bragging rights for setting common sense policies for everyone’s benefits stay with Oklahoma.

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