In-State Tuition: A Winning Policy for All

TRENTON – Some of the state’s poorest residents are ineligible for in-state tuition rates at New Jersey state colleges and universities, making higher education unaffordable, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective’s newest report which was funded by the Sandra Starr Foundation in Princeton.

Children brought to the United States by parents without proper documentation often pay out-of-state tuition rates to attend New Jersey colleges, even if they have spent a majority of their lives in the country and have graduated from a New Jersey school. These out-of-state tuition rates are often double the rates charged to in-state residents and pose a significant financial burden for many undocumented students.

“College tuition is already a costly endeavor for many New Jersey families,” said NJPP Policy Analyst Anastasia R. Mann, who wrote the report, Garden State Dreams: In-State Tuition for Undocumented Kids. “That’s because the state has reduced its investment in higher education since the 1990s. Because undocumented families earn an average of 40 percent less in income than legal immigrants or citizens, the cost becomes an insurmountable hurdle.”

NJPP’s report examines the impact of New Jersey’s current policy on these young people, the state’s colleges, taxpayers and the state as a whole. The report finds that when hard-working immigrant students cannot fulfill their potential, it is not only the students who pay the price; the entire state pays.

“Students are not the only ones to come out ahead when the path to college is made more accessible to them,” Mann said. “Offering them resident tuition rates also helps stimulate the overall economy. As tuition becomes more affordable, families can use their tuition savings to meet other needs, which circulates this money back into the economy.”

Legislation introduced early in 2008 by Senators Ronald L. Rice (D-Essex), M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Sandra B. Cunningham (D-Hudson) would allow undocumented students to pay in-state rates if they met the following four requirements:

  • Attend a New Jersey high school for three or more years;
  • Graduate or receive the equivalent of a high school diploma from a New Jersey high school;
  • Register to enter or be currently enrolled in a public institution of higher education no earlier than the fall of 2008; and
  • Fill out an affidavit with the college or university stating that he or she has filed an application to legalize his or her immigration status

The bill, S1036, is supported by the president of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, the former Executive Director of the New Jersey Higher Education Commission and Gov. Corzine. It has been opposed by Gov.-elect Chris Christie, who has said New Jersey’s efforts should be focused on providing tax relief for middle-class residents.

However, research suggests that tuition equality actually helps lower spending on prisons, emergency assistance and other entitlements, while bringing in millions of dollars in taxes from these more educated workers. There is also evidence to suggest that higher education leads to improved health and raises voting and volunteerism levels.

Federal and state laws mandate free public education for all children, regardless of their immigration status, through the 12th grade. However, once students graduate from high school, New Jersey law is vague about which students will pay in-state tuition and which will not, stating only that students must have maintained their primary residence in the state for at least 12 months to qualify for in-state tuition. This has resulted in a hodge-podge of policies at the state’s colleges and universities.

In addition, undocumented status prevents college students from receiving Tuition Assistance Grants, a means-tested entitlement, or money from NJ Stars, which allows students in the top 15 percent of every high school graduating class to attend community college for free. Federal law also restricts the money undocumented students have access to for high education by barring undocumented students from federal student assistance including subsidized work-study programs, Pell Grants and federal loans like those provided by the Perkins Program. Most private scholarships require applicants to provide proof of U.S. citizenship.

Although there are no good estimates of the number of undocumented students who would seek a college education if these students were charged in-state tuition rates, based on the experiences of other states, the study finds few would avail themselves to a four-year degree. Instead, most would attend community colleges, where enrollment is more elastic.

“New Jersey should do the right thing and join the 11 states that already allow undocumented students to quality for in-state tuition rates regardless of their immigration status,” Mann said.