A Good Problem to Have: College Students Who Are Undocumented Immigrants

The California Supreme Court's ruling yesterday permitting undocumented immigrants who graduated from California high schools to continue to pay lower, in-state tuition at state universities has sparked a predictable outcry in some quarters. Critics, including the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that challenge state law permitting the discounts, suggest that undocumented students might be creating overcrowding on campuses or bankrupting the state.

That's bunk. Whatever you think of the issue of immigration, the numbers and facts suggest that no one should much worry about the particular issue of undocumented immigrants attending California colleges. Why? Because there are so few of them, far too few to create any fiscal problem for California's university systems.

Even if you accept the estimate by the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which brought the suit, that 25,00 undocumented students attend the state's public colleges, you're talking about a tiny number. That's well less than one percent of total enrollment.

The real number may be even smaller. As the LA Times explains:

"Under California's nonresident tuition exemption, approved in 2001, public colleges can offer in-state tuition to those who attended California high schools for at least three years. Some of those students are illegal immigrants. Others are U.S. citizens who attended high school in California but whose families may now live elsewhere, or those who moved out of the state to study or attended boarding schools in California....

"At the 10-campus University of California, about 2,019 students paid the in-state tuition provided by the law, according to statistics for the 2008-09 school year. About 600 are believed to be undocumented, UC officials said.

"About 3,600 Cal State students qualified for in-state tuition under the law, which saves them about $11,000 a year. California's community colleges enroll about 36,000 students who pay the lower fees as a result of the law, which saves them an average of about $4,400 a year. Cal State and community college officials said they did not know how many of those are illegal immigrants but that those students too deserve an education."

And yes, that last note. It's not merely that students who grew up going to California schools deserve an education. It's that California has a huge interest -- educationally, culturally, and economically -- in producing more college graduates. By some estimates, the state is projected to have 1 million fewer college graduates than it needs by 2025. Figures suggest that in immigrant communities, the high school dropout rate is high.

So the problem in this case isn't that undocumented immigrants are attending public universities here. The problem is that they are so few.

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