Undocumented Students in Rhode Island Can Pay In-State Tuition at Public Colleges

For many, obtaining a college degree that could lead to better career opportunities remains an unattainable part of the American dream. But for undocumented students in Rhode Island, the dream might have moved a bit closer to reality when that state's Board of Governors for Higher Education okayed a policy that will allow them to reach that goal. Education Insider examines the controversial decision and why some are so vehemently opposed to it.

By Harrison Howe


Improving the 'Intellectual and Culture Life of Rhode Island'

Rhode Island recently joined 13 other states, a list that includes California, New York, Texas and Washington, in allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition to attend public colleges. The move makes the Ocean State unique among others included in that list in that the allowance is not legislated but is rather a matter of policy.

In September 2011, the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education, with a mission 'to provide an excellent, efficient, accessible and affordable system of higher education' as stated on the organization's website, voted in favor of a plan to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Rhode Island public colleges. As a result, undocumented students will pay an annual tuition of $9,824, as compared to $25,912 for out-of-state residents.

The state's governor, Lincoln Chafee, wrote in a letter to the Board of Governors (as reported by the Huffington Post in September): 'This policy change will improve the intellectual and culture life of Rhode Island while strengthening our workforce and helping our economy.'

Despite that outlook, the board's decision has been less than popular with many residents.

Many Say 'Nay' to New Policy

Supporters called it a 'step in the right direction' and 'the right decision', but not all Rhode Islanders feel the same. As evidenced by a public forum held in the gymnasium of the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) shortly before the vote, there was vocal opposition to the policy. Some argued that it would take opportunities away from natural citizens, while others complained that taxpayer money would likely be used to pay for the tuition.

The outcry went beyond the public, with some state legislators speaking out against the new policy. According to the Providence Journal Raymond McKay, president of the Rhode Island Republican Assembly, said that such a policy 'rewards bad behavior' and claimed that illegal immigrants who raised children in the United States had 'more than enough time to become citizens.' Senator Glen Shibley told the Board of Governors that the decision was not theirs to make.

And Terry Gorman, the executive director of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, questioned the legality of the decision. He cited the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which makes it unlawful for undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates.

Still, the board's decision could yield positive results. For instance, a recent study by the Latino Policy Institute of Roger Williams University shows that allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition could decrease the high school dropout rate for Latinos. And the reduced tuition could wind up making the difference between attending and not attending college for many of these students; by affording them the opportunity to get a college degree, Rhode Island could be helping undocumented students realize a better future.

'Education is key for all of our children in the state of Rhode Island,' Rep. Anastasia Williams said at the CCRI forum.

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