Immigration Reform: State DREAM Acts Can Help Undocumented Students

In-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students has been lawful in certain states since 2001. California and Texas were the first states to grant eligible undocumented students in-state tuition at public institutions. Ten more states have followed their lead since: Utah, Washington, New York, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Rhode Island, Nebraska, and New Mexico. These state laws are not a path for legal residency – that is a matter of federal authority. Instead states use their power to remove some financial barriers undocumented students face in higher education. 

These laws have been nicknamed “state DREAM acts,” because they benefit a specific group of undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers (and also because DREAM is an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors). Dreamers are individuals who moved to the United States, usually during grade school, and are not legal residents or citizens. They are current high school students, college students, and recent graduates. They are the would-be beneficiaries of the federal DREAM Act, which failed to pass the senate by five votes in 2010. However, unlike the DREAM Act, “state DREAM acts” do not place Dreamers on a path to citizenship; they only grant in-state tuition at public institutions. In-state tuition recognizes and affirms the experience of undocumented students as being equal to that of their their legal resident and citizen peers.

In theory, state residents are thought to be deserving of in-state tuition because they pay sales taxes, property taxes, income taxes, and other fees to support state institutions. Undocumented students and their families deserve the right to pay in-state tuition rates for college because, contrary to widespread belief, they pay taxes. In fact they do so and do not receive any returns or credits because of their immigration status.

In 1982 the Supreme Court ruled that undocumented students are entitled to the same K-12 educational opportunities as legal residents and citizens based on Plyler v Doe. Every year across the country at least 65,000 undocumented students earn their high school diplomas. States and taxpayers invest in these students' education and place them on the path to college. It is a disservice to our communities and economy to deny students an opportunity to earn a college degree. States that do not offer in-state tuition cheat themselves from producing an educated workforce necessary for a 21st century economy.

Young undocumented individuals face many challenges in terms of their education once they graduate high school. The main challenge is the cost of paying for higher education. Forty percent of undocumented students live below the federal poverty level. They are not eligible for federal and state aid. At public institutions undocumented students are considered international or out-of-state students and subject to higher tuition fees. These fees may by up to 150% more than resident tuition. Private schools may not offer financial aid to them, and if they do it is often limited. In-state tuition makes it affordable for resilient undocumented students to attend college.

In-state tuition is an important step to eradicate poverty in immigrant communities because it helps motivated individuals join the mainstream workforce. A college graduate’s lifetime earnings are nearly double those of someone with only a high school diploma. By providing undocumented students’ access to higher education through in-state tuition, states produce educated economic contributors who will buy more goods, pay more taxes, and depend less on welfare.  

Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors