Guest Blog: Tuition Equity–Keeping Promises and Doing the Right Thing

Why the silence from higher education leaders?
Why the silence from higher education leaders?

By Linda Stamato

Governor Chris Christie reversed his position against equal treatment of New Jersey students with respect to tuition charges just in time for the November election, just in time to “connect” with the voting segment most interested in this issue. Just in time to boost his numbers for a big win, and, no doubt, garner national attention and thus appear to be GOP presidential material.

Linda Stamato
Linda Stamato

Well, he did receive 51 percent of the Hispanic vote (but, please note, the numbers for this election, the one that is still being called a landslide, had one of the lowest voter turnouts for a gubernatorial race in New Jersey, but, that’s a story for another day).

It didn’t seem to occur to folks, certainly I saw no reference in the press, that the governor did have the opportunity to “see the light” on tuition equity for all state students, in each and every one of the preceding three years of his term, but he declined to take it. Indeed, his position in opposition to it was firmly asserted:

“I don’t believe that for those people who came here illegally, we should be subsidizing with taxpayer money, through in-state tuition, their education…And let me be very clear from my perspective: That is not a heartless position that is a common sense position.”

What prompted Christie’s observation was the endorsement of tuition equity by Governor Perry of Texas (during the run-up to the presidential election).

The Texas Governor–passionately–defended his state’s policy of granting the children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates to attend public colleges and universities in Texas, providing they meet specific residency and graduation requirements.

“If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart…. We need to be educating these children.”

Christie, as noted, adamantly and heartlessly, disagreed.

But, later, he was given to say, as the election approached two years later, that he saw  it differently: In fact, he convinced several Latino audiences that he saw the issue their way. Folks seemed to think, well, all good–good for him, Christie that is, and good for the students who have been paying more than other in-state students and those who will attend college here in New Jersey in the future, if, of course, positive legislative action was taken on New Jersey’s Tuition Equality Bill and the governor signed it.

Well now, it’s post-election time, and, it’s not looking so good.

“Christie appears poised to nix student immigration bill” screamed the Star Ledger headline.

The Senate bill (S2479)  isn’t to Christie’s liking.  Really?  The bill that passed the Senate Budget Committee on November 14, 2013, and that was available to Christie to review?   Stephen Sweeney makes the point crystal clear:  the bill that the Senate passed is the one that was in play prior to the election to which Christie had raised no objections when it was sitting on his desk.  To Sweeney, it’s a classic case of “bait and switch.”

Leaving the grand-standing part of the politics out of it for the moment, it’s hard to understand the governor’s rationale.  Christie wants no tuition aid given to these undocumented students who would now be eligible for in-state tuition.  How is that position equitable? He has raised a number of other matters that, according to most folks, amount to some fancy, diverting dance steps but no substance.

The fact of the matter is that public colleges in other states have welcomed and admitted undocumented student for some time. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court first considered how education systems should treat undocumented students in the case of Plyler v. Doe, in 1982, that struck down a 1975 Texas law seeking to deny undocumented children a free elementary and secondary public education by charging them tuition to attend that state’s schools. Twenty years after the implementation of this decision, Texas became the first state to successfully pass a tuition-related bill addressing undocumented students’ access to all in-state public higher education. In brief, undocumented students in Texas are treated the same as legal residents, providing they meet specific residency and graduation requirements.

Options for undocumented students are limited. Many of these students come from low-income families and find college costs prohibitively high. They cannot qualify for any federal or state funded financial aid, including loans, grants, scholarships and work-study programs.  The sole obligation falls on them, and, of course, their families.  Not in every state, to be sure.  Not in Maryland, not in Rhode Island, not in Arizona either, or, as noted, in Texas!  (And at least eleven other states are getting close, including Illinois and New York.)

Otherwise, here, in New Jersey, it’s the same as being denied educational opportunity. Until or unless the federal government acts, it’s up to the states.

The nation came close to passing the Dream Act some time back. It would have permitted certain immigrant students who have grown up in the U.S. to apply for temporary legal status and to eventually obtain permanent legal status and become eligible for U.S. citizenship if they go to college or serve in the U.S. military; and would eliminate a federal provision that penalizes states that provide in-state tuition without regard to immigration status. But, as with much before Congress, it failed.

The effort, then, shifts to the states.

And there is no state policy in New Jersey.  Colleges and universities decide for themselves and most are “letting well-enough alone” which means they either ignore the issue, a variation on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” theme; they charge out-of-state tuition rates; or, in the case of a few community colleges, charge all students who reside in the county, with or without documents, the same tuition and fee rates (as the other states mentioned above do).   It’s a mixed bag, that’s for sure.

While the presidents of 11 of New Jersey’s 19 community colleges signed a letter in support of federal legislation, eight presidents declined to sign the letter. I have seen no statement by the senior institutional leaders on the pressing subject, not as of two years ago.

New Jersey ought to have a statewide policy, pending federal action.

The Star Ledger editorial, “DREAM gives kids of illegal immigrants a chance,” had it just right in November of last year:

“There is no sense in punishing young people for the choices their parents made, or depriving the country of the hard work these young people are eager to do. Like a lot of immigration reform ideas, the DREAM Act started out with bipartisan support that is now shaky. But those fence-sitters might consider the words of one of their rising stars. Just two years ago, before he stepped into the governor’s seat and the national spotlight, then-U.S. Attorney General for New Jersey Chris Christie spoke to a church group in Dover. “Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime,” he said. “The whole phrase of ‘illegal immigrant’ connotes that the person, by just being here, is committing a crime.” 

Let’s hope GOP leaders will recall Christie’s sentiments and guide their party members out of the dark and toward the DREAM opportunities young immigrants deserve.”

Promises don’t amount to much; it’s actions that count.

The governor has said he will not support the Senate bill which is not quite the message some folks thought he was delivering before the election.

Ginacarlo Tello, a member of the Dream Act Coalition, wants to avoid the legislation from turning ” into a political issue.”  It’s always been a political issue.  Let’s see if Tello remembers, later, what he said today, on Chris Christie’s stance:

“He is backtracking on his promise, and this is something we won’t forget.”

Regardless of interpretations of who said what, in what detail, about what, and when, establishing tuition equity and making tuition aid available are actions that are as humane as they are essential, and, overdue.  The education of young people, after all, is at stake. The more educated the citizens of the state, the better for our polity, economy, and society.  That simple, that sane.

1 comment
  1. Even the editors at the Washington Post have weighed in:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/christies-broken-dream-on-tuition-sup
    port-for-undocumented-youth/2013/12/05/59e87c9c-5c6d-11e3-bc56-c6ca94801fac_
    story.html?hpid=z5

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