Issue Brief: It’s Time for Tuition Equity

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The 2012 presidential election put the issue of immigration policy back on the front burner, as leaders in the Republican Party realized they could ill afford to alienate Latino and Asian voters that voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in part because of the GOP’s anti-immigrant stance.

15 states mapThe U.S. Senate is set to consider the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S-744), which would make legal the presence, and create a pathway to citizenship, for a portion of the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States, impose stricter border security provisions, modernize the visa and family petitioning process and revamp the legal immigration system.

But the national debate should not obscure that there is another immigration battle taking place in New Jersey around the Tuition Equality Act (A-4225), which would allow undocumented students who meet certain criteria to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. If enacted, New Jersey would join 15 other states that have passed laws allowing qualified undocumented students to take advantage of in-state tuition rates.[1]

Higher Costs Shut Striving Students Out

States with tuition equity laws require undocumented students to meet other criteria (e.g.. attended an in-state high school for at least three years, as required in New Jersey’s proposed bill). The Tuition Equality Act would also allow non-resident students who attended high school for three years and graduated from a New Jersey high school or received the equivalent of high school diploma to return and qualify for in-state rates. Under federal law, the same rights must be extended to former New Jersey residents who are U.S. citizens, graduated from a New Jersey high school and want to return here for college.[2]

The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition rates is profound for immigrant families struggling in high-cost New Jersey. At Rutgers, the state’s flagship university, the in-state rate is less than half of the rate for out-of-state students. At many of the community colleges, the contrast is even starker. In Hudson County, in-county students pay 40 percent the tuition that out-of-state students do; in Cumberland County, they pay just 30 percent.

in-state vs. out of state

incounty vs out of state

The primary reason that undocumented students who finish high school do not go onto college is the high cost.[3] As it currently stands, New Jersey students who were brought to the United States as minors are encouraged – by public policy and financing – to complete high school but then left in a bind, facing very high education costs that are almost always beyond the reach of students and their families. The Tuition Equality Act would help to fix this problem by improving the affordability of public higher education for deserving New Jerseyans.

The decision not to attend college has a snowball effect, making it harder for individuals to lift themselves out of poverty and into the middle class. The evidence is indisputable that receiving a degree leads to increased opportunity and earning potential.

President Obama’s executive order known as Deferred Action temporarily removes the threat of deportation and gives temporary work authorization to younger immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before age 16.[4] This opportunity increases the payoff of tuition equity even more, as undocumented students who finish college would be able to work legally in New Jersey in the better jobs that a higher education can bring.

Without tuition equity, however, New Jersey is in danger of creating an underclass that would contribute much less to the state’s economy. The average salary of the five most in-demand New Jersey occupations that require at least a bachelor’s degree, $85,272, is almost two and a half times higher than the average salary of the five fastest-growing New Jersey occupations that require less than a bachelor’s degree ($34,676).[5]

growing jobs and salaries

With nearly half (43.2 percent) of New Jersey’s children of immigrants living in low-income households – a number that has almost doubled since 1990[6] – failing to pass tuition equity would keep a college education out of the reach of many striving students by forcing them to pay non-resident tuition rates.

Who Are New Jersey’s Foreign-Born and Undocumented?

New Jersey remains a “port of entry” for people from other countries, with only California and New York having higher percentages of foreign-born residents. New Jersey’s public school students come closer to mirroring the nation’s ethnic and racial composition than any other state. New Jersey’s Asian population enjoys the highest average income of any subgroup in the state. In short, the state’s attraction to immigrants is a significant economic advantage.

Twenty-one percent of New Jersey’s population is foreign-born, according to 2011 U.S. Census data. These 1.9 million residents are very diverse, with 17.3 percent being from Europe, 31.4 percent from Asia and 45.8 percent from Latin America.[7] Half of these residents are naturalized citizens who entered the country before 2000.[8]

The number of New Jersey children who are not U.S. citizens is 87,400, according to the Census. New Jersey is also home to many mixed-status families, with children who can receive the benefits of citizenship but parents who can’t – nearly 9 in 10 New Jersey children with immigrant parents are U.S. citizens.[9]

Undocumented Immigrants in NJMeanwhile, the undocumented comprise an estimated 6.2 percent of New Jersey’s population and make up 8.6 percent of the state’s labor force – higher shares than our neighboring states of New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland and Delaware.

Among the 35 states that do not have in-state tuition laws, New Jersey has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents and the second highest estimated percentage of undocumented immigrants.

The Deferred Action executive order offers a new and more reliable source of information about undocumented populations. While there are an estimated 48,327 potential beneficiaries of Deferred Action in New Jersey, including 6,245 Asians (the third highest number of all the states),[10] the federal government has accepted only 14,390 applications from the state as of April 2013 (and approved only 8,483).

One reason for the low application rate is that many eligible residents may have dropped out of high school. Many undocumented youth realize that they cannot afford the rising cost of college at out-of-state rates. Faced with a narrowing window of opportunity, many of these students stop pursuing an education to enter the low-wage job market, competing with undocumented workers who have more experience but may be less educated.[11] By offering tuition equity, New Jersey would encourage undocumented youth who have dropped out or entered the low-wage job pool after high school to return to school and continue pursuing an education.

All of New Jersey Can Benefit from Tuition Equity

Undocumented students in New Jersey seek equal opportunity and the chance to pay dividends back to the state that’s already invested in them. Not allowing for tuition equity decreases the chance that these striving students will be able to gain greater skills, obtain higher-paid jobs and start more successful businesses. But the students aren’t the only ones who lose out in that equation: New Jersey does as well.

If an undocumented child attends New Jersey’s public schools from preschool through 12th grade, the state has invested $242,928 on average in educating that student.[12] Why not give these students a better chance to better themselves and return the favor by investing in New Jersey? The New Jersey Presidents’ Council – which represents all of the state’s public, private, four-year and two-year colleges and universities –has unanimously adopted a resolution supporting in-state tuition rates for undocumented New Jersey residents. It knows the value of investing in all of New Jersey’s children and students. The question remains: Does the legislature and the governor?

Appendix A

Profiles of States Offering Tuition Equity

Appendix B

Foreign-Born Demographics by County

Appendix C

County Educational Demographics of Non-Citizens


[1]States that currently have tuition equity laws: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington. In addition, Rhode Island’s Board of Governors for Higher Education voted unanimously to provide access to in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities to certain students regardless of their immigration status, and the University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents adopted a similar policy.
[2]The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996, Section 505.
[3]Roberto G. Gonzales, Born in the Shadows: The Uncertain Futures of the Children of Unauthorized Mexican Migrants, Ph. D. Dissertation, University of California, Irvine, 2008.
[4]President Obama announced this policy on June 15, 2012.
[5]New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Labor Market Information Update for April 2013, May 2013.
[6]Migration Policy Institute, New Jersey Social & Demographic Characteristics 2011.
[7]U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey Population and Housing Narrative Profile: 2009-2011.
[8]U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey Population and Housing Narrative Profile: 2009-2011.
[9]Immigration Policy Center, New Americans in New Jersey.
[10]Immigration Policy Center, Who and Where the DREAMers Are, Revised Estimates.
[11]Robert G. Gonzales, American Sociological Review, Learning to Be Illegal: Undocumented Youth and Shifting Context in the Transition to Adulthood, 2011.
[12]Based on 2010-11 average cost-per-pupil of $17,352 in the New Jersey Department of Education’s Taxpayers’ Guide to Education.