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Controversy erupts over tuition break for illegal immigrants

The Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education unanimously approved allowing undocumented students to attend public colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates last Monday. The change has sparked debate, with supporters contending that it would net additional revenue for state schools and opponents arguing that it could take admission spots from citizens.

Students qualify for the policy — which has been compared to the DREAM Act by supporters — under three conditions. The student must have attended a Rhode Island high school for at least three years, received a high school diploma or G.E.D. from a Rhode Island school and signed an affidavit stating their intent to pursue citizenship as soon as possible.

The new policy will affect Rhode Island College, the University of Rhode Island and the Community College of Rhode Island starting fall 2012.

Travis Escobar, the student body president at Rhode Island College, said he supports the policy. "There are a lot of people … who are put in a situation where they were brought here when they were young and they grew up under a public education system," said Escobar, who is Puerto Rican. "And they can't progress to higher education because of what their parents brought them into."

Though Escobar said he could not speak for the entire student body, he said a few students in his political science class "felt that if you're illegal, you shouldn't be given in-state tuition."

This sentiment was echoed by Nick Tsimortos, the student body president of Roger Williams University, a private university that would not be affected by the change.

"We pay so much to go to school, and we work hard to get where we want," he said. "It's not fair to see students come into the country illegally and take spots of students who have been working hard their whole lives."

Besides Rhode Island, 12 states currently permit undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. Rhode Island is the first to make the change through policy rather than legislation.

"Legislation had been filed in our General Assembly for the past several years and never made it out of committee," said Michael Trainor, spokesman for the Rhode Island Office of Higher Education. Once the new Board of Governors  — appointed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 after he took office in January — learned that "it was completely within their authority to make this change," they took action, he said.

According to a 2011 study by the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, the change would result in 24 additional undocumented students attending state colleges and universities, a 31 percent increase in non-citizen enrollment. In 2009, there were 74 full-time undocumented students attending these state schools.

The decision has been controversial and was the rallying cry for demonstrators gathered at the State House yesterday to protest Chafee's leadership of the state.  "There has been a lot of misinformation by people who are on an anti-immigrant agenda," Trainor said. A primary criticism is that the new undocumented college students would be a drain on state resources. But the Latino Policy Institute study predicted that the change would actually generate $162,000 in additional revenue for state schools, as the revenue from additional tuition would outweigh the cost of instructing new students.

State education administrators have pushed back on the claim that granting undocumented students in-state tuition would displace citizen students. "Our policy isn't going to change in any way which students are considered for admission," Linda Acciardo, director of communications and marketing at URI, said in The Narragansett Times yesterday. "We'll continue to admit every qualified Rhode Islander."

Fairness and the economic imperative of an educated workforce motivated the board's decision, Trainor said. Rhode Island already provides undocumented students a K-12 education, he said, and "the board felt that to have someone who calls Rhode Island home have to pay out-of-state tuition was not consistent with how we treat them in elementary through high schools."



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