The Time for True ‘Tuition Equality’ is Now

This is prepared testimony delivered to the Senate Higher Education Committee today on S-699 and S-700.

Thank you for holding the hearing to hear two bills today dealing with mixed status families.

New Jersey has the opportunity to achieve true “tuition equality” by allowing those that qualify for in-state rates under the Tuition Equality Act to also qualify for state financial aid. Many of these students are Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status holders who are facing unprecedented federal attacks – and ultimately deportation – under the Trump administration.

While there is little state policymakers can do to prevent this huge step backward at the federal level, there are actions they can take that would honor New Jersey’s history as the golden door for immigrants, and make our state a more welcoming, inclusive place. Our state legislature could start by allowing undocumented students to access state financial aid.

Most of the beneficiaries of DACA came to New Jersey in their parents’ arms. They graduated from our high schools. Many worked to help their undocumented parents make ends meet and have become vital members of our communities, building a stronger and more productive place to live.

If New Jersey fails to act, many of these young students would be forced to drop out of school as they would no longer be able to keep their work-permitted jobs. But, even without work permits, these students should be given the opportunity to pursue higher education. We all benefit from having a more educated population and we should not be the state that blocks their passion for higher education. After all, we have told them since they were young children that there is no better way to succeed in America than to graduate from college.

Sure, the state boosted educational and economic opportunities for undocumented students living in the state by allowing them – if they met certain requirements – to pay in-state tuition rates instead of much higher out-of-state rates at public colleges and universities. This has helped more students in New Jerseyans pursue a higher education, which will put them – and New Jersey – on a path towards greater economic opportunity.

But the cost remains a huge barrier for these students and their families, who have lower-than-average incomes and are blocked from accessing the need-based financial aid available to their low-income peers.

All New Jersey students who show promise to succeed and meet the financial requirements should be able to access the same programs as their classmates, regardless of their status. Let’s be clear: the best way to get a return on the investment made educating these young folks from preschool through 12th grade is to create a clear pathway to an attainable college education – and the increased earnings and economic impact it brings.

For working class undocumented high school graduates, no financial aid equals no college and fewer economic opportunities, which is bad for all of us. These young folks aren’t going anywhere. Cutting the rungs off the ladder of opportunity helps build a permanent underclass of uneducated immigrants who struggle to escape poverty, which is a drag on the state.

Not allowing access to aid also wastes considerable taxpayer investment – of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars – in these students before college.

From Spring 2014 to Fall 2015, about 500 new students – defined as those who had never enrolled at the institution before, including transfer and first-time students – have now enrolled under the law. Surely, the 500 or so striving students fighting long odds and benefitting from the tuition equity law could benefit from the state tuition aid that 77,000 of their low-income peers received last year. And we know that New Jersey could make this dream a reality without breaking the bank.

New Jersey should follow the lead of eight other states, from bright blue California to deep red Texas, and allow these students to apply for aid. The key word here is “ apply.” Not all students that apply would receive aid, they would have to submit proof of parent’s income and show financial need.

Parents in undocumented families, like the rest of us, work hard and pay taxes all in order to give their kids a better shot at success than they themselves had. By seeking access to state financial aid for college, these families are not asking to cut to the front of the line. They are simply asking to be giving a chance to stand in line with the rest of their classmates for a chance to make New Jersey better.