The massive economic package the Democrats are trying to get through Congress could open the door to a free community college for undocumented immigrants.
But this lifeline for many people who are now denied access to higher education could also rekindle controversy in republican states over immigration and federal transgression.
The immigration provision was incorporated into a plan drafted by the House Democrats to provide college students with free community college for two years. The proposal calls for the federal government to spend $ 111 billion to the states from 2023 to 2028. The states would use this money to cover tuition fees for community college students.
In order to receive the money, however, the states could not refuse the non-teaching services on the basis of “citizenship, alien or immigrant status”.
That would conflict with applicable laws in several states – albeit not in Maryland.
Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina prohibit unauthorized immigrants from enrolling in at least some of their public universities and colleges.
Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin prohibit undocumented students from receiving state tuition fees. Other states impose other limits on coursework on undocumented students.
Helping undocumented students develop skills and earn degrees has the same economic benefits as helping other community college students, said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group from more than 500 colleges leaders.
“It’s a big deal,” explains Feldblum, “that undocumented students have not yet had access to federal financial aid. They have not been included in federal grants or loan programs. You were not accepted into Pell Grants. “
“But a new program of free community college studies is now being considered, and the administration has recognized from the start of this program that there should be no arbitrary barriers against undocumented students,” she said.
Undocumented students make up about 2% of all college students in the country, but the census data doesn’t show how many students are studying at community colleges or other colleges.
Still, the Democratic idea could face a setback from Conservatives.
US Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and a staunch opponent of extending benefits to undocumented immigrants, has criticized the move.
“Illegal immigrants have skipped the line and broken our laws – they shouldn’t be rewarded with free classes,” Cotton told Fox News. “But Democrats want to pay with your money to go to college.”
“This is not fair and will only encourage more illegal immigration,” he added.
However, the Community College plan may not go ahead as everything is in the air about the Democrats’ proposals right now.
Democratic lawmakers are arguing over the size of the social spending package, with claims ranging from $ 1.5 trillion to $ 3.5 trillion over the next decade. With such a huge disagreement, almost any part of the package could be left out of the final deal.
But the comprehensive plan for social spending is President Biden’s number one legislative priority. Additionally, First Lady Jill Biden is a professor at Community College, which increases the likelihood that at least part of the community college is part of an agreement.
Pell grants and more
The US House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor last month developed a blueprint of what aid to community college might look like.
The educational body would enable many immigrants to qualify for Pell Grants. The proposal expressly allows recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) (often referred to as “dreamers”), immigrants with temporary protection status, and others who have been granted deferred forced departure to be eligible for federal financial aid.
Second, states would only receive federal funding to pay community college tuition fees if those states also allow undocumented students to attend community college for free.
The Democrats in Congress hope that the states will join the idea of the free community college, as the federal government would initially pay practically the full bill.
However, some costs would slowly be shifted to the states, with the state accounting for 20% in 2027-2028.
In other words, the structure of the grants is remarkably similar to the framework that Democrats in Congress relied on to entice states to expand their Medicaid programs under Obamacare.
Yet, despite the generous financial incentives, 12 southern-centered states have resisted calls to expand Medicaid. Many of these states have also introduced coursework restrictions for undocumented college students.
North Carolina is one of them.
The Democrat, Senator Mujtaba Mohammed, has tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill in the Republican-controlled legislature that will allow DACA recipients to pay state tuition at public universities.
He enthusiastically supports the efforts of the Democrats in Congress to make college more affordable for undocumented students. However, Mohammed is concerned about making aid to these students a condition for scholarships to the states.
“Two years of free community college education for every single North Carolina resident should be a founding standard and value in North Carolina,” he said.
“But I don’t think we should withhold funds from North Carolinians who want to go to community college. We shouldn’t put these people at a disadvantage because our state laws were not compassionate or sensible when it comes to teaching undocumented students. “
Mohammed hopes that when federal law is passed, his lawmaker colleagues would review North Carolina’s approach to federal incentives.
“Why should our federal tax dollars go to other states that have state tuition fees for undocumented students who have expanded Medicaid?” He asked. “It makes absolutely no sense.”
At the national level, education advocates have broadly supported efforts to help immigrants attend community college.
Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, said the ability for undocumented students to attend community college would increase their productivity and income, and it would benefit the local economy.
Free tuition would increase these benefits, she said. “Our students are older, with an average age of 28 years. The vast majority of them are working. Anything we can do to remove barriers to completing their education would be an investment in the country’s middle class. “
Feldblum, of the college presidents group, said government programs had already shown these benefits.
Many states now allow undocumented students to take in-state tuition. Meanwhile, some but not all state-level “pledge programs” that offer free tuition to community college allow undocumented students to attend, including in Maryland.
“When [undocumented students] were accepted into government study programs and pledge programs, they have proven their worth and economic worth, ”said Feldblum.
Several states have only granted DACA recipients – people who came to the country as children and attended US schools – state tuition and other benefits, but that ignores growing numbers of immigrants, Feldblum noted.
In order to qualify for DACA, students must prove that they have been in the country since June 15, 2007. That was more than 14 years ago. A federal court prevented the Biden administration from expanding DACA any further. So many younger students entering college now don’t qualify for DACA.
More than just state education
Another benefit of the free community college program, sometimes referred to as America’s College Promise, is that it goes beyond just offering students in the states.
“In states with government education, this is still largely inaccessible because college is not affordable for people who do not receive funding,” said Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice for The Education Trust. “Undocumented students are not eligible for state aid, and in some states they are not eligible for state aid.”
Del Pilar said the free community college program could be the “greatest change in higher education since 1965” when the Higher Education Act was first passed.
But Del Pilar, who previously worked in the Pennsylvania state government, warned that states could get out of the free community college program for financial reasons unrelated to immigration policies.
The House Democratic proposal requires states to meet certain financial thresholds for supporting higher education, and these could be difficult to achieve for states that haven’t spent a lot of money supporting public colleges and universities.
In fact, Vermont should almost double its higher spending. According to analysis by the Century Foundation, South Dakota should increase its spending by 50% and Pennsylvania by 41%.
“It’s hard to predict whether state lawmakers and governors will get in or out” [the free community college plan] in the same way as Medicaid’s expansion, but Congress should consider an option to cover a higher percentage of the cost in states like this to incentivize participation, ”wrote Peter Granville of the Century Foundation.
Del Pilar said the better solution might be a universal community college education program. Not only would undocumented immigrants benefit from this, but also other students who have difficulties financing their studies.
It doesn’t make sense, he said, that students in California could get free tuition and maybe even financial assistance for non-tuition costs, while students in Georgia would be completely excluded from the program.
But the Democrats in the House of Representatives, Del Pilar said, are working with the state higher education system with their proposal. “The house uses incredible leverage to gain access,” he said. “For me it is a way of encouraging states to move towards fairness.”
Daniel C. Vock is the Washington correspondent for the States Newsroom. He can be reached at [email protected]