Undocumented Immigrants and In-State Tuition

Undocumented immigrants in Connecticut may soon qualify for in-state tuition and financial aid due to separate pieces of legislation passed by the state’s House and Senate in May. 

The House bill, signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy in June, expanded a 2011 law that reduced the required length of in-state high school attendance from four years to two in order to qualify for in-state tuition. The Senate bill, which has been sent to the House for review, would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for various forms of financial aid, including waivers, grants and student employment.

Supporters of the measure argue that its provisions will reap greater economic rewards for the state as a whole and improve educational outcomes for the state’s population of undocumented immigrants.

“The legislation passed today moves Connecticut forward tomorrow. It helps us build a brighter future not just for our children now, but for our economy in the long-term. Most importantly, it’s the right thing to do,” Gov. Malloy’s spokesperson, Devon Puglia, told the Connecticut Mirror. 

Most opponents of the bills warn that the measure may limit higher education resources for legal residents of the state, while others contend that the issue should be addressed as part of larger reforms to the nation’s immigration policy. 

“To me, immigration policy should be something taken up at the federal level and by Congress rather than by individual states. We need the federal government to fix our broken immigration system,” said Rep. Bob Godfrey.           

Connecticut is one of 20 states with tuition equity policies. Of those, 17 states have implemented equity policy legislatively, while the other three—Rhode Island, Hawaii and Michigan—leave that power to the state university’s board of regents or governors. Of the 10 states with the highest undocumented immigrant populations, seven have laws in place that provide access to in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who pursue higher education. Connecticut joins California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas and Washington as states that offer both in-state tuition rates and financial aid to certain qualified undocumented immigrants.  

Other states such as Arizona, Georgia, Indiana and Missouri have taken another approach, passing laws that prohibit undocumented immigrants from qualifying for in-state tuition and two states—Alabama and South Carolina—bar undocumented immigrants from enrolling in public colleges altogether.  

Among the states that have passed tuition equity laws, there are some uniform eligibility requirements that undocumented immigrants must meet. First, the student must have attended a high school in the state for a certain amount of time, typically between two and three years. Second, the student must have graduated from a high school in that state. Third, the student must sign an affidavit signifying that he or she has applied for legalized status or plans to do so once he or she is eligible.  

Across the country, trends indicate that the number of undocumented immigrants enrolled in two-year and four-year colleges and universities is disproportionately small when compared to both the general undocumented and enrolled college student populations.  

Texas became one of the first states to implement tuition equity legislation in 2001.     

According to recent Pew Research Center data, Texas has an estimated 1.65 million undocumented immigrants as of 2012—or 6.3 percent of the state’s total population—making the state’s undocumented immigrant population the second highest in the country, behind California. The total number of undocumented immigrants enrolled in two- and four-year colleges in the state’s public universities and community colleges, however, is less than 25,000, or 1.5 percent of the state’s total undocumented population. Less than two percent of enrolled Texas college students are undocumented immigrants.

In Connecticut, only about 90 of the nearly 31,000 students at The University of Connecticut identified as undocumented immigrants—or 0.3 percent of the university’s total student population. 

Immigrant rights advocates have suggested that the general high cost of attendance—with or without tuition equity laws implemented by states—acts as a significant deterrent for prospective students.

“Even with these newly proposed tuition breaks in Connecticut, it is very difficult for these students to afford college,” said Yanil Teron, executive director of the Center for Latino Progress, based in Hartford, Conn.  

Teron said that some undocumented students may not be aware of available assistance. 

“A lot of these students don’t know they qualify for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals),” she said. “The common misconception is that DACA only includes Latinos, but this policy impacts immigrants from all countries.”

Despite these challenges, immigration advocates and policymakers in Connecticut hope that tuition equity will bolster the state’s economy by offering greater access to higher education opportunities for the state’s undocumented immigrants.