One of the guests at President Obama's State of Union address was a North Texan who's a college student but isn’t a legal resident. She illustrates the current debate over what benefits the U.S. should offer undocumented immigrants, especially those who were brought here as children. One such benefit that is currently under fire in Texas is in-state college tuition.
Texas and California were first to offer in-state college tuition to graduates of state high schools, regardless of their citizenship status. That was in 2001. Since then, more than a dozen states have followed.
Many Texas state legislators hope to repeal it during this session, on the grounds that it is an incentive for people to immigrate illegally. State Rep. Myra Crownover of Denton recently said at Texas Woman’s University that these benefits make it harder to enforce the country’s immigration laws.
“I believe in the rule of law and I believe that we have to get rid of every incentive," she said.
The in-state tuition benefit applies to all state colleges and community colleges, bringing the price down at Texas A&M, for example, from $26,000 a year to just $9,000.
Pia Orrenius, vice president and senior economist at the Dallas Federal Reserve, has been watching the impact of this benefit on undocumented students.
“In the great majority of cases, undocumented immigrant students don’t take advantage of the in-state tuition, because they basically don’t go to college," she said. "The reason is that they’re not allowed to work.”
Texas has other reasons for offering the education benefit. Economists have found that education "has payoffs not just to the individual, but society in general," Orrenius said. "We know that education is correlated with higher earnings, of course, but also with less incidence of crime, family stability and other positive side effects."
Right now, 20,000 students enrolled in Texas colleges are undocumented, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. That’s less than 2 percent. Most of those students are in community or technical colleges.
"I’ve heard claims that these students are displacing native born Texans in our colleges and universities, and that’s not the case," said Raymund Paredes, the board commissioner. "We have plenty of capacity in higher education in Texas."
Economists have found that allowing undocumented students into colleges actually increases the enrollment of U.S. citizens, perhaps because many immigrant families have documented and undocumented members.
As far as completion rates, Paredes says the undocumented student success rate is similar to other low-income students.
“For community colleges, the three-year completion rate is under 30 percent, and you would see that undocumented students have similar numbers,” he said.
In other words, in-state tuition for undocumented students has been low cost and low benefit to Texas.
The entire calculation changed two years ago, when President Barack Obama announced a new federal program to offer work permits and a path to legal residency to undocumented kids who were brought to the U.S. by their parents.
This program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, has been a boon to people like Karen Alvarado, who has a degree but was previously barred from better-paying jobs.
“We’ve been able to work, we’ve been able to drive," she said. "We’ve been able to do a lot of things that normal people do. It’s like before we were standing in the shadows, and now we can actually go in the light."
Alvarado emigrated with her family from Mexico as a 6-year-old. At that point, she didn’t have much say in the matter. She graduated from MacArthur High School in Irving, and went to North Lake College for an associate’s degree. When DACA was announced in 2012, she was working in the back of a Corner Bakery. Now she’s a tutor in Irving ISD.
“You study so hard to get a degree, and you can’t work because you don’t have papers, you don’t have a number," she said. "Now that we have a number, now that we’re someone, we can work, and use what we worked so hard for.”
Her boyfriend, Guillermo Rodriguez, is currently a student at North Lake College. He's hoping to transfer to University of Texas at Arlington next fall, to get a bachelor's degree in civil engineering.
Paying out of state tuition would be a hardship for him, he said. He hopes it wouldn't keep him from pursuing his degree, but it might stretch the time out that he's in school.
"Maybe it would take me six years," he said. "I could only take one class at a time."
The future of in-state tuition for undocumented Texas residents is out of Alvarado and Rodriguez's hands. But for them and the tens of thousands of others who have taken advantage of it, the state’s investment in their education is finally starting to pay off.