Development & Education

Undocumented students in Colorado get a better shot at college

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Credit: Denver Scholarship Foundation
Undocuemnted Colorado college students are now able to pay in-state tuition rates, joining recent graduates like US citizen Cristina Chacon.

Colorado, Minnesota and Oregon this year became the latest states to offer in-state tuition rates for undocumented students, bringing the national tally to 16. This fall in Colorado, about 640 students are benefiting.

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The policy is giving young people like Jossie Cordova a new chance to build a career in the state. Cordova grew up in Mexico barely knowing her father, who was thousands of miles away working in the farm fields of Colorado. When Cordova was in the 4th grade, her mom said they were going on a vacation to see her dad up north.

“The next thing we know, two weeks later, we get registered to go to school here [in Denver]. I was really shocked. I’m like, ‘Are we going back to my casa?  I miss my bed.’ And then my dad was like, ‘No, you’re going to stay here for a while.’”  

Things began well in Denver for Cordova, with elementary and middle school.

“And then in high school, it was just really heart-breaking, because you were undocumented and you couldn’t really apply for schools.”

Cordova had the right to apply, but for students like her, paying out-of-state tuition was out of reach.

“I think some teachers were like, ‘Well, just don’t go to school, just go and work after high school, that’s pretty much your option.’ But it’s also really risky because people have to probably get paid under the table, or get a fake social [security card].”  

Cordova put aspirations of being a cancer researcher on hold, got a phony ID and went to work bussing tables in a Mexican restaurant. If Cordova had graduated from high school last June, instead of three years ago, things might’ve worked out differently for her. Cordova is now trying to help other undocumented students move forward. She's involved with the Denver educational justice organization Padres Unidos.

Last spring, after a 10-year battle, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates.  Students must have attended a Colorado high school for three years prior to graduation or have finished a GED.

It’s made a world of difference to 19-year-old Leslie, who asked me not to use her last name. She was brought to the US illegally by her mom when she was 6. Leslie was a straight-A student in a Denver high school when she graduated in 2012. Then she got three part-time jobs and went to college.

“I could only afford one class. And it was ridiculously expensive. One class was almost $2000.”

This fall, the cost of college for Leslie has dropped by some 70 percent.

“It helps so much, so much,” says Leslie.

Savings are even more dramatic at more expensive schools like Colorado State University. At the Fort Collins campus, undocumented students can now pay $7,000 in tuition. That’s a $15,000 yearly savings.

Mike Martin, the chancellor of the Colorado State University system, supports this change.

“I happen to be one of those people who believe that a better educated populace anywhere, in this country or any other place, is better for the long-term survivability and prosperity of society,” says Martin.

“Education, in and of itself, is a good thing, despite whatever your passport or your license, or your lack of either, says.”

Most Republican Colorado lawmakers didn’t agree with that. They voted against the in-state tuition bill, arguing it’s an amnesty for rule breakers.

Many conservatives nationwide have said the same. At a Republican presidential debate in 2012, Mitt Romney argued against Texas’ law, the first to offer in-state tuition for undocumented students.

“I don’t see how it is that a state like Texas, to go to the University of Texas, if you’re an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount. You know how much that is? It’s $22,000 a year,” said Romney.

Romney questioned why illegal aliens living in Texas should be allowed to pay lower tuition rates than US citizens living in other states hoping to attend the University of Texas.

Some conservatives also argue that this reduction costs states money. Others disagree, arguing that state schools are making money through higher enrollment figures.

In Texas, an in-state tuition bill passed in 2001 with bipartisan support.

“It really was billed as an economic and demographic imperative argument,” says Sarah Hooker with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC.

“That if we [Texas] have the second-largest population in the country of unauthorized immigrants, and [are] also a state that is really trying to build the human capital of its workforce… something had to be done.”

Hooker also points out the long-term benefits of a more educated populace.

“There’s quite a bit of research on the benefits of higher levels of education, in terms of reductions in social service use and criminal history.”

Those arguments haven’t convinced the Republican candidates vying to be the next Texas Lieutenant Governor, who say they’d like to end the practice of in-state tuition rates for unauthorized immigrants.  

In New Jersey, newly re-elected Governor Chris Christie is taking the reverse tack. Christie recently said he’d consider granting in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants at New Jersey’s public colleges and universities.

And while some are celebrating the law in Colorado, Christine Marquez-Hudson, director of the Mi Casa Resource Center in Denver, adds a dose of reality. Her group helps Latinos and other working families strive for economic self-sufficiency through career development. Marquez-Hudson says undocumented students still aren’t eligible for Pell grants or many scholarships.

“It costs $26,000 a year to attend CU [Colorado University] Boulder – that includes tuition, books, and dorms. But if you’re a low-income kid whose parents are making minimum wage, or maybe your parents got shipped back to Mexico, how are you going to afford $26,000 a year?” says Marquez-Hudson.

Some undocumented students are finding a way, like college freshman Susana, who is attending the much less expensive Metropolitan State University of Denver. She got funding from the Denver Scholarship Foundation for $2,000 a semester. 

She’s grateful for that. She wants to be a physician, but wonders what will happen to her in four years.

“I honestly don’t know,” she says. “It’s like you reach the end of line and you have all these things, but you can’t use them. And I think that’s the biggest problem — that even after we go to school, and we acquire all these skills and things that could potentially help not only us, but other people, too, what do we do with that?”

That question can only be addressed by lawmakers in Washington.

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