On Tuition Equity’s Second Anniversary, Too Many Students Remain Left Behind

states map-01Two years ago this Sunday, Gov. Christie signed New Jersey’s Tuition Equality Act – a historic step towards assuring that all students, regardless of their immigration status, have an opportunity to pursue a college education. Even with this progress, though, too many students are being denied the opportunity to get a college education due to lack of access to financial aid.

New Jersey had the opportunity to qualify undocumented students for state-funded supports like Tuition Aid Grants and the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF), which give students from low-income families who meet admission standards the chance for a college degree. However, Gov. Christie vetoed the financial aid section of the bill.

Early this year, NJPP published its findings on the implementation of the law and found that 251 new undergraduate students have benefited from the law, mostly at three universities: Rutgers, New Jersey City University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

And like other low-income students, undocumented students are likely to start at a lower-cost community college and transfer to four-year institutions to complete their degrees. This was the case in Fall 2014: at Rutgers, about 40 percent of Tuition Equality students were transfer students; at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, half were transfers.

But even as the new law is helping some striving students, it’s clear that there are many more who can’t cover even in-state tuition rates plus fees and other expenses. As costs rise, students from working families turn to student loans and need-based aid to cover their costs. But undocumented students and their families face additional hurdles that other low-income students do not: they are not eligible for any type of state or federal financial aid. As a result, most of these prospective students, “even with allowance for in-state tuition, cannot afford to attend public universities,” as Rutgers University’s Vice President of Enrollment told us.

Undocumented families, who pay over $600 million each year in state and local taxes, are not looking for a handout but an equal opportunity to succeed and contribute to the state they call home. Any extra costs would be minor, and a modest increase in state funding would accommodate all low-income students, regardless of status.

In today’s economy, it is increasingly important for working-class families to send their children to college. Excluding some of these students from a potential four-year college education will continue to be leave many of them behind in an underclass of low-wage work with little room to move up to the middle class or contribute to New Jersey. For undocumented students to get a fair shot at climbing the economic ladder and investing fully in New Jersey later in life, financial aid is essential.