Democrats’ vision for free community college would boost undocumented students

WASHINGTON – The huge economic policy package Democrats are trying to push through Congress could open the door to a free community college for undocumented immigrants.

But this lifeline for many now deprived of access to higher education could also reignite controversies in Republican-leaning states over immigration and federal overreach.

The immigrant provision was included in a plan developed by House Democrats to provide two years of tuition-free community college to students. The proposal calls on the federal government to distribute $ 111 billion to states from 2023 to 2028. The states would use this money to cover the tuition fees of community college students.

To receive the money, however, states could not deny tuition-free benefits on the basis of “citizenship, alienation, or immigration status.”

This would go against the laws in force in several states.

Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina prohibit unauthorized immigrants from attending at least some of their public universities and colleges.

Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin prohibit undocumented students from receiving tuition fees in the state. Other states impose further restrictions on tuition fees for undocumented students.

Helping undocumented students develop skills and earn college degrees has the same benefits for the economy as a whole as helping other community college students, said Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Alliance of presidents for higher education and immigration, a group of more than 500 higher education institutions. leaders.

“The reason this is such a big deal,” Feldblum explained, “is that so far undocumented students have not had access to federal financial aid. They have not been included. in federal financial aid or loan programs They were not included in the Pell Grants.

“But now a new program is being considered for free community college tuition, and the administration recognizes from the outset of this program that there should be no arbitrary barriers against undocumented students,” a- she declared.

GOP flashback?

Undocumented students make up about 2% of all university students nationwide, but census data does not show how many are in community colleges or other undergraduate institutions.

Still, the Democrats’ idea could face a backlash from the Conservatives.

US Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas and declared opponent of expanding benefits to undocumented immigrants, has previously criticized the move to Fox News.

“Illegal immigrants have jumped the line and broken our laws – they shouldn’t be rewarded with free tuition,” Cotton said, according to Fox. “But Democrats want to use your money to pay them to go to college.”

“This is not fair, and it will only further encourage illegal immigration,” he added.

The community college plan may not come to fruition as everything to do with the Democrats’ proposals is on hold at the moment.

Democratic lawmakers are vying for the size of the social spending package, with demands ranging from $ 1.5 trillion to $ 3.5 trillion over the next decade. With such a disagreement, almost any part of the package could end up being left out of the final deal.

But the sweeping social spending plan is President Joe Biden’s top legislative priority. Additionally, First Lady Jill Biden is a professor at a community college, which increases the likelihood that at least part of the community college will be part of a deal.

Pell Grants and more

The US House Education and Labor Committee last month developed a blueprint for what community college aid might look like.

The education panel would allow many immigrants to qualify for the Pell Grants. The proposal specifically allows deferred action for child arrivals, or DACA, beneficiaries (often referred to as “dreamers”), immigrants who have temporary protected status and others who have been granted a delayed forced departure. ” be eligible for federal financial assistance.

Second, it would only allow states to get federal money to pay for free community college tuition if those states also allow undocumented students to attend community colleges for free.

Congressional Democrats are hoping states will buy into the idea of ​​a free community college because, initially, the federal government would pay virtually the entire bill.

However, some costs would slowly shift to states, with the state’s share reaching 20% ​​in 2027-2028.

The structure of the grants, in other words, is remarkably similar to the framework that Congress Democrats relied on to press states to expand their Medicaid programs under Obamacare.

Yet 12 states, concentrated in the South, have resisted calls to expand Medicaid despite generous financial incentives. Many of those same states have also imposed restrictions on tuition fees for undocumented students.

North Carolina is one of them.

State Senator Mujtaba Mohammed, a Democrat, tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill in the Republican-controlled legislature to allow DACA recipients to pay tuition at public universities.

He enthusiastically supports the efforts of Congressional Democrats to make the university more affordable for undocumented students. But Mohammed is worried about making aid for these students a condition of state grants.

“Two years of free community college education for each North Carolina should be a core standard and a North Carolina value,” he said.

“But I don’t think we should be withholding funds for North Carolinians who want to go to community college. We should not deprive these people because our state legislature has not been compassionate or reasonable when it comes to tuition fees for undocumented students.

Mohammed hopes that, if federal legislation passes, his fellow lawmakers will reconsider North Carolina’s approach to federal incentives.

“Why should our federal taxes go to other states that have tuition fees for undocumented students who have extended Medicaid?” ” He asked. “It makes absolutely no sense.”

National push

Nationally, education advocates have widely supported efforts to help immigrants attend community college.

Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, said giving undocumented students the opportunity to attend community college would increase their productivity and income, which would benefit the regional economy.

Making tuition free would increase those benefits, she said. “Our students are older, with an average age of 28. The vast majority of them work. Anything we can do to remove the barriers that prevent them from completing their education… would be an investment in the country’s middle class.

Feldblum, from the college presidents group, said public programs have already shown these benefits.

Many states now allow undocumented students to receive tuition fees in the state. Meanwhile, some, but not all state-level “promise” programs that offer free community college tuition allow undocumented students to participate.

Programs in California, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington State include coverage for undocumented students.

“When [undocumented students] have been included in state tuition and pledge programs, they have proven their usefulness and economic value, ”Feldblum said.

Several states have extended tuition and other benefits only to DACA recipients – people who came to the country as children and attended American schools – but that excludes a growing number of immigrants, Feldblum noted.

To qualify for the DACA, students must prove that they have been in the country since June 15, 2007. It has now been over 14 years. A federal court has blocked the Biden administration from further expanding the DACA. So many younger students who are entering college now are not eligible for DACA.

More than tuition fees in the state

Another benefit of the free community college program, which is sometimes referred to as America’s College Promise, is that it will go beyond simply offering students courses in the state.

“In states that have tuition fees, this remains largely inaccessible because the university is not affordable for people who cannot get financial aid,” said Wil Del Pilar, vice president of the higher education policy and practice for The Education Trust. “Undocumented students are not eligible for federal aid, and in some states they are not eligible for state aid either.”

Del Pilar said the free community college program could be the “biggest change in higher education since 1965,” when the higher education law was first passed.

But Del Pilar, who previously worked in the Pennsylvania state government, warned that states could opt out of the free community college program for financial reasons that have nothing to do with immigration policy.

The House Democratic proposal requires states to meet certain financial thresholds to support higher education, and these could be difficult to meet for states that haven’t spent a lot of money to support public colleges and universities .

Vermont, in fact, is expected to nearly double its higher education spending. South Dakota, meanwhile, is expected to increase spending by 50% and Pennsylvania is expected to increase spending by 41%, according to a Century Foundation analysis.

“It is difficult to predict whether or not lawmakers and state governors will choose [the free community college plan] the same way they did for the Medicaid expansion, but Congress should consider an option to cover a higher share of costs in states like these to encourage participation, ”Peter wrote. Granville of the Century Foundation.

Del Pilar said the best solution might be a universal community college tuition program. This would benefit not only undocumented immigrants but also other students who find it difficult to pay for their studies.

It doesn’t make sense, he said, that California students can take advantage of free tuition and maybe even financial aid to pay for expenses other than tuition, while students in Georgia are completely excluded from the program.

But House Democrats, Del Pilar said, are working with the public higher education system with their proposal. “The House uses incredible leverage to create access,” he said. “For me, it’s a way to encourage states to move in the direction of equity.

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