Should Undocumented Immigrant Youth Pay In-State Tuition to Attend College?


(The RAND Blog)

Two college students sitting outside using a laptop

Photo by Stephen Coburn/Fotolia

by Robert Bozick

July 28, 2015

Currently, there are about 11.4 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States (PDF), 1.1 million of whom are under the age of 18. Though political feelings toward undocumented immigrants range from empathy to indifference to downright hostility — most Americans are forgiving of their children, many of whom were brought to the United States as infants. Because of their age and dependency status, many national and local policies aimed toward youth accommodate children of undocumented immigrants. This is most apparent in our school system: Undocumented children are entitled to free primary and secondary public education everywhere in the United States, regardless of their legal status. However, when they finish high school, their options for college vary depending on the state in which they live.

Type of tuition adult Americans think undocumented youth should pay

Currently, 20 states treat undocumented youth as residents and extend in-state tuition rates to them (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington). Oklahoma and Wisconsin passed laws extending in-state tuition to undocumented youth, but have since added restrictions. Three states (Arizona, Georgia and Indiana) treat undocumented youth as out-of-state residents and charge them out-of-state tuition, accordingly. Two states (Alabama and South Carolina) outright prohibit undocumented youth from enrolling at any public postsecondary institution.

What Does the Research Say About These Policies?

A couple of prominent studies have found that extending in-state tuition benefits to undocumented youth led to increased rates of college enrollment among non-citizen youth. These findings were met with optimism from proponents of in-state tuition rates for undocumented youth who argue that limiting educational opportunities for these students precludes solid footing on the “ladder of social mobility” that helped support generations of immigrants before them. However, in a study recently published in International Migration Review, my colleagues Trey Miller, Matheu Kaneshiro, and I re-analyzed the data used in past studies — with additional waves of data and with more precise sample specifications — and we found that extending in-state tuition benefits to undocumented youth did not result in increased enrollment. But passing laws that prohibit undocumented youth from accessing in-state tuition led to a 12 percent drop in their probability of enrolling in college. It is worth noting that Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, and South Carolina — all states that deny in-state tuition to undocumented youth — have immigrant populations growing at or above twice the national rate between 2000 and 2009. Economic opportunities in these new immigrant destinations — central to the immediate needs and well-being of immigrant families at the time of migration — may be eventually eroded for the youngest members whose success in their new country relies on opportunities for education, which become limited in these states once they finish high school.

How Do Americans Feel About These Policies?

How do most Americans feel about the treatment of undocumented immigrants — and in particular, opportunities for their children? To get a sense of this, we fielded a survey to a nationally representative sample of 4,733 adults as part of RAND's American Life Panel that asked: “Do you think that once children of undocumented immigrants reach the age of 18 and decide to attend college, they should be allowed to pay the same in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities in their state of residence as native-born citizens or should they be charged the rate that out-of-state students pay?” The majority of adults — 62 percent — reported that they believe children of undocumented immigrants wanting to attend college should pay the in-state tuition rate should they decide to attend college in their state of residence.

Support for in-state tuition rates for undocumented youth by political party and age cohort

It is worth noting that this receptive view towards undocumented youth varies by political party affiliation: The majority of Democrats (76 percent) and Independents (61 percent) support in-state tuition for undocumented youth, while less than half of Republicans (44 percent) do. Additionally, there are cohort differences, with Millennials (67 percent) more likely to support in-state tuition for undocumented youth than their Generation X (61 percent) and Baby Boomer (60 percent) counterparts. If such feelings about these state policies reflect broader sentiments toward immigrants, opposition to in-state tuition for undocumented youth may not go over well with Independent and younger voters, who make up a growing share of the electorate.

Robert Bozick is a sociologist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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