Op-Ed: For New Jersey Lawmakers, No More Excuses to Block Tuition Equity

This op-ed appeared on the October 29, 2013 edition of The Times of Trenton.

NJPP Op-EdThe last standing political excuse for blocking tuition equity in New Jersey – the governor’s opposition – no longer exists after the governor’s surprising and clear endorsement of the policy last week. New Jersey lawmakers are now free – finally – to stop punishing the children of unauthorized residents by putting a college education out of reach.

By leveling the playing field and extending in-state tuition rates to the striving but undocumented students known as DREAMers, New Jersey would effectively cut the cost of college tuition in half, making higher education possible and pulling more students up into the middle class.

Many DREAMers would likely first attend a lower-cost community college before transferring to a four-year college. If they’re lucky and can attend full-time, it will take them at least five years to earn a bachelor’s degree. The current average cost of this for an undocumented student is $111,600 – and that’s just for tuition. Making tuition equity a reality in New Jersey would cut that average tuition cost by $50,200, bringing it down to $61,400.

If a DREAMer went straight into a public four-year college, it would currently cost an average of $123,000 in tuition only to earn a degree in five years. Enacting tuition equity would cut that average cost by $57,000, reducing it to $66,000.

Many DREAMers, having no choice in the matter, have grown up as full-blooded Americans in every way – except for their immigration status.

And New Jersey’s taxpayers have invested heavily in the public educations of these DREAMers. Beginning at age three, they were eligible for preschool in most city districts, meaning that they’ve benefited from 15 years of schooling and a shot at a high school diploma. But the door to a college education is closed to most of them since they are currently charged out-of-state tuition rates – as if they grew up in Topeka, not Trenton.

The losses are tangible and felt by everyone. DREAMers lose out on a more productive life; taxpayers see their investment of $250,000 or more largely wasted; and the state’s economy adds more low-wage workers to the employment pool.

High costs are shutting these students out, and it is crucial New Jersey levels the tuition playing field. But in order to truly give these DREAMers a fair shot at success, the Garden State should follow the lead of states like California and Texas, which grant in-state rates and also extend eligibility for state grants, scholarships and – in some cases – loans to DREAMers.

The governor has removed the last political obstacle to passage of the tuition equity bill. Now it’s in the hands of legislators of both parties to end this ten-year shutout – a change that will benefit all of us.