Texas legislators are debating whether to repeal the Texas Dream Act. Signed by then-Governor Rick Perry in 2001, the law allows certain undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. A recent Texas Tribune analysis revealed that the majority of undocumented students who pay in-state tuition rates don't attend four-year universities – they’re in community colleges. And most are in school here in North Texas.
Like many immigrants, Alejandra Miranda and her parents left their native El Salvador for a “better life.” That was 12 years ago. She’s 23 now and enrolled at North Lake College in Irving. As she sat in a busy dining room on campus, she talked about coming to terms with her status as an undocumented student.
“I didn’t understand much of the situation or how difficult it is until I graduated high school and I needed to step into the real world,” Miranda said. “It was very difficult when it comes to getting a job.”
The 23-year-old said she believes attending college is the best thing she can do to better herself. She plans to major in business. Still, she had her doubts when she enrolled at North Lake.
“For a long time, you know, when I was attending school, I just kind of had one of those moments where I questioned why was I in school if I couldn’t go any farther until I realized what to do with my situation,” she said.
Miranda doesn’t receive financial aid, but works 20 hours a week managing the student campus store. That job combined with an in-state tuition rate, she said, makes going to school a little more affordable.
Critics say the Texas Dream Act is unfair to students who are here legally, and that colleges and universities shouldn’t be giving undocumented college kids what they consider a discount. Some lawmakers said resources should instead be directed toward legal residents, but not everyone agrees.
“We understand that there’s others who may question in investment in individuals,” said Joe May, Chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District. “We think just the opposite; we need to be investing in individuals.”
Just two percent of Texas higher education students are undocumented and pay the lower rate, but more than three quarters of them attend community colleges. In 2013, DCCCD enrolled 3,691 undocumented students on in-state tuition, the most of any college in the state, according to the Texas Tribune report and data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
May said he respects other people’s views, but called this a “human capital” issue.
“What we’re doing is helping prepare them to contribute to the economy and getting them the education that they need in order to get the great jobs.” May said. “And, hopefully, [they will] be able to produce future college graduates as they have children and their children live here in the community, so that we can increase the quality of life for everyone here.”
To qualify for in-state tuition, undocumented students must have graduated from a Texas public or private high school, or received a GED. They also have to sign an affidavit that they plan to apply for permanent residency. And they have to have lived in Texas for three years.
Like Dallas County, Tarrant County College officials say they would rather see students in school than out of school. TCC had more than 2,000 undocumented students in 2013.
“We in our registrar’s offices want to be able to help students to access education here at TCCC,” said David Ximenez, associate vice-chancellor for enrollment services. “For me to able to see that we have in the top three in the state a number of students who we’re able to help through this provision, it was satisfying and pleasing for me to see.”
Ximenez said most students choose community college because it’s convenient to where they live or work, and more affordable. At TCC, a student who qualifies for in-state tuition pays $55 an hour versus $216 an hour.
Back at North Lake, Miranda said she has a message for other students in her situation.
“Educate yourself in everything that’s going on,” she said. “I know there’s going to be doubts either ‘Do I go to school? Do I not go to school?’ and I just recommend everybody to attempt school. That’s one of the biggest benefits.”
Miranda said she knows the next big hurdle after school is becoming a legal permanent resident. She hopes that will happen in a couple of years.