74 undocumented students get in-state tuition in RI; advocates push for state law

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A year after undocumented students who attended high school in Rhode Island became eligible to pay in-state tuition rates, 74 of them have enrolled at the state’s three public colleges, well below the figure advocates estimated would take advantage of the policy.

All told, 71 undocumented students signed up for classes at the Community College of Rhode Island, two enrolled at the University of Rhode Island and one is attending Rhode Island College, according to a WPRI.com review of data provided by the state Office of Higher Education.

Those numbers account for little more than half of the original enrollment figures projected when the since-abolished R.I. Board of Governors for Higher Education approved the controversial policy in late 2011, but also dispel the criticism that undocumented students would take seats that would otherwise be reserved for legal residents.

“The policy hasn’t shaken the world,” Board of Education Chairwoman Eva Marie Mancuso told WPRI.com. “This was an issue about fairness and there has been little financial impact. Once we have a few years of data behind us, even people who are against it are going to realize that.”

Under Rhode Island’s policy, undocumented students who attended a high school in the state for at least three years and graduated or earned an equivalent diploma are eligible to pay in-state tuition. The students must also sign a waiver committing to seek legal status as soon as they become eligible.

At all three of the state’s public colleges, in-state tuition costs less than half of the amount the schools charge out-of-state students.

At CCRI, an open-enrollment school, in-state students pay $3,950 per year while out-of-state students pay $10,582. The annual in-state rate at URI is $12,450 versus $28,016 for out-of-state students. At RIC, in-state students pay $7,602 while out-of-state students pay $18,300.

“We have 74 students that are in college that wouldn’t be in college without the policy,” Mancuso said. “We have invested a tremendous amount of resources in all of our students. Why not continue with our investments?”

Board chairwoman: Word still has to get out

Mancuso served as chairwoman of the government relations committee for the old Board of Governors for Higher Education in 2011 and was considered the driving force behind the board’s unanimous vote to approve the in-state tuition policy. She said the board chose to adopt the policy after years of waiting for the legislature to take up the matter.

After the General Assembly dissolved the state’s K-12 and higher education boards in favor of one 11-member panel in 2012, Gov. Lincoln Chafee – who supported the in-state tuition policy – appointed Mancuso to the chair the new board.

Mancuso said she thinks “the word still has to get out” about the in-state tuition policy, but acknowledged that the 74 students represent a smaller enrollment than was predicted in 2011. Those projections ranged from a low of 98 students predicted by the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University to a high of 160 students estimated by Rhode Island Kids Count, the state’s leading childhood advocacy organization.

Michelle DePlante, director of community relations at the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, said the low enrollment numbers through the first year of the policy reflect two factors: a lack of awareness about the policy among students and schools, and the inability for undocumented students to receive financial aid.

DePlante said she and other advocates have been hosting forums at many of the high schools in the state’s urban communities to better inform students and guidance counselors about the policy, but indicated there “is still a lot of confusion” at high schools and the three public colleges.

Even with the in-state tuition policy, college remains too expensive for many undocumented students, according to DePlante.

“The financial barrier is still the biggest issue because they don’t qualify for loans or work study,” DePlante told WPRI.com. “They’re finding ways, but it’s still hard.”

Opponent: Chafee stacked the deck

For others, even one undocumented student getting in-state tuition is too many.

Terry Gorman, executive director of the nonprofit Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, said he feels the policy “will be an additional incentive for additional illegal alien families to consider Rhode Island as their destination state.” He claims the state is vastly understating the number of students that could eventually take advantage of the policy based on the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) currently enrolled in state schools.

A 2012 report released by Rhode Island Kids Count found that approximately 54,000 Rhode Island children were living in immigrant families, but did not state the number of unauthorized young people living in the state.

The same report stated there were 8,307 ELL students in Rhode Island schools during the 2010-11 school year. A separate report released in 2011 by the Pew Research Center estimated that between 25,000 and 35,000 undocumented residents were living in the state.

Gorman, who has long been one of the most vocal critics of the policy, said he believes the board was forced to pass the policy because lawmakers didn’t have the support to approve the bill in the General Assembly.

“The governor, we feel, stacked the deck at the [board] by appointing 11 of 13 new members to the [board] in his first year,” Gorman told WPRI.com.

To date, no one has challenged the constitutionality of Rhode Island’s policy.

Rhode Island is one of 16 states that allow undocumented students to receive in-state tuition and was the first to implement the policy through an education board’s approval rather than the state legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona, Georgia and Indiana are the only states that have laws prohibiting in-state tuition for undocumented students.

The General Assembly still hasn’t considered the in-state tuition bill despite attempts by both supporters and opponents of the policy to bring it to a vote. State Rep. Grace Diaz, D-Providence, told WPRI.com she’ll introduce an in-state tuition bill for the ninth consecutive year when lawmakers reconvene next month. Rep. Doreen Costa, R-North Kingstown, said she opposes the bill, but believes it should be considered by lawmakers in 2014.

Diaz said she thinks she had the votes to pass the bill in the House last year, but indicated there was “too much pressure” on lawmakers to focus on unrelated legislation. She said she plans to make the issue a top priority in the coming legislative session, but stopped short of guaranteeing passage.

“I don’t like to predict, I like to work,” Diaz said. “We are coming back and we will dedicate our energy to it.”

Federal reform

The renewed push to pass a law granting in-state tuition to undocumented students comes as members of Congress continue to waver on taking up immigration reform on the federal level.

A bill known as the DREAM Act that would allow undocumented students to remain in the country legally has been defeated several times, most recently in 2011. That bill would grant students legal status if they were under the age of 16 when they entered the US and graduated from high school or received an equivalent diploma.

In 2012, President Obama established a policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that temporarily suspends deportation and allows some undocumented citizens to work in the country as long as they arrived in the U.S. prior to age 16 and were under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012; are enrolled in school, have graduated or earned an equivalent diploma, or were an honorably discharged veteran; and have not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanors.

A report released in August by the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution found that 777 DACA applications were filed in Rhode Island during the first year of the policy, with 478 applications being approved, a 62% success rate. Nationally, 465,509 applications were filed and about 57% were approved.

Dr. Michael Olivas, a University of Houston Law School professor who has helped six states write their in-state tuition policies, said DACA was a game changer for many undocumented people because it allowed them to work and apply for driver’s licenses, but indicated that in-state tuition laws are still important for those who want to see undocumented students attend college.

“The big deal is in-state tuition because that’s what makes it possible,” Olivas told WPRI.com. “With in-state tuition, at least you can barter your time, find the money, go to community college.”

Mancuso, the Board of Education chairwoman, said she believes the number of undocumented students receiving in-state tuition will increase over time, but indicated she isn’t concerned about the economic impact on the state. She said she plans to advocate for the legislature to pass an in-state tuition bill.

“I think it would be great if it was in law,” Mancuso said. “But I’ll take what I can get.”

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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