New Jersey’s Inaction on Tuition Equity Wastes Tax Dollars and Defies Common Sense

Like other seniors at top high schools across the country, Miriam, who attends McNair Academic in Jersey City, is taking a full load of Advanced Placement courses and is eager to start applying to college. But Miriam is different, because her family emigrated from Mexico when she was four. While she is benefiting from deferred action and not facing the threat of deportation, if she wants to improve her chances in America Miriam will have to pay double the tuition of her “legal” classmates if she hopes to attend a public college or university. Thus, the state whose taxpayers invested about $270,000 for her K-12 education says to Miriam and her family: “If it’s a college education you want, forget New Jersey.”

Meanwhile, down in Ocean County, Pablo, who emigrated with his family from Honduras when he was five, is ready to drop out of Lakewood High School because his aspirations for college seem impossible. And unfortunately, there are few school administrators encouraging him to stay in high school and try for college, in part due to the stereotype that “illegals don’t go to college.” If Pablo makes the leap and drops out after 9th grade, he’ll be pushed into the shadows of a society that expects him to survive on low-wage jobs with no benefits or protection. And New Jersey’s taxpayers will have lost their $200,000 investment in his K-12 education.

About 13,530 young undocumented New Jersey residents have been awarded deferred action, which means they are authorized to work and secure both a social security number and driver’s license. While the federal administration has done its part to rectify the punishment of innocent children, those same children are still not eligible for in-state tuition because of New Jersey’s decade-long failure to act on tuition equity.

So if Miriam applied to Rutgers-New Brunswick she would be treated as an out-of-state resident and have to find $27,525 just for tuition, more than twice as much as the in-state rate of $13,499. For almost all undocumented families $27,000 a year is out of reach. Were Miriam in Kansas, one of 15 states with tuition equity, she could attend the flagship University of Kansas for just $9,225 a year.

New Jersey’s failure to enact tuition equity stifles the opportunities of thousands of enterprising and successful – students from earning the education that would improve their economic prospects and benefit the state’s economy.

Continuing in this direction simply makes no sense. It wastes the highest investment any state makes in a public school education and dumps persistent, successful students into dead-end low-wage jobs.

For more than a century, public schools have been the bottom rung on America’s ladder of opportunity for millions of immigrants. For a half-century, public colleges and universities have provided the second rung. In New Jersey, legislators continue to effectively guarantee that families with undocumented students cannot reach that rung. That needs to change and could during the upcoming lame duck session of the legislature. That’s the legislature where every incumbent candidate for re-election is promising to “fight government waste.” Well, tuition equity gives them an early opportunity to deliver on at least one promise.

Miriam and Pablo are composite characters designed to represent the diversity of the undocumented immigrant experience in New Jersey.

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