WASHINGTON—The massive economic policy package Democrats are trying to muscle through Congress could open the door to free community college for undocumented immigrants.
But that lifeline for many people now denied access to higher education could also reignite controversies in Republican-leaning states over immigration and federal overreach.
The provision on immigrants was included in a plan drafted by House Democrats to provide two years of tuition-free community college for students. The proposal calls for the federal government to dole out $111 billion to states from 2023 to 2028. The states would use that money to cover tuition for community college students.
To receive the money, though, states could not deny the tuition-free benefits based on “citizenship, alienage, or immigration status.”
That would run afoul of current laws in several states.
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 bar undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition. Other states impose other restrictions on tuition benefits for undocumented students.
Helping undocumented students develop skills and earn academic degrees has the same benefits for the larger economy as helping other community college students, said Miriam Feldblum, the executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group of more than 500 higher education leaders.
“The reason this is a big deal,” Feldblum explained, “is that, up until now, undocumented students have not had access to federal financial aid. They have not been included in federal financial aid or loan programs. They’ve not been included in Pell Grants.”
“But now there’s a new program being considered for free community college tuition, and the administration is recognizing from the very start of this program that there should not be arbitrary barriers set up against undocumented students,” she said.
Undocumented students make up about 2 percent of all college students in the country, but Census data doesn’t indicate how many are in community college or other undergraduate institutions.
Still, the Democrats’ idea could face blowback from conservatives.
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and outspoken opponent of expanding benefits to undocumented immigrants, criticized the move already to Fox News.
“Illegal immigrants skipped the line and broke our laws—they should not be rewarded with free tuition,” Cotton said, according to Fox. “But Democrats want to use your money to pay for them to go to college. That’s not fair, and it will only incentivize more illegal immigration.”
The community college plan may not happen, though, since everything about the Democrats’ proposals is up in the air at the moment.
Democratic lawmakers are fighting over the size of the social spending package, with demands ranging from $1.5 trillion to $3.5 trillion during the next decade. With such wide 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. Also, first lady Jill Biden is a community college professor, increasing the likelihood that at least some community college component will be part of an agreement.
Pell Grants and more
The U.S. House Education & Labor Committee developed a blueprint last month for what community college aid could look like.
The education panel would allow many immigrants to qualify for Pell Grants. The proposal specifically lets Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipients (often called “Dreamers”), immigrants who have temporary protected status and others who have been granted deferred enforced departure be eligible for federal financial aid.
Second, it would only let states get federal money to pay for free community college tuition if those states allow undocumented students to go to community college for free, too.
Congressional Democrats hope states will sign on to the free community college idea because, initially, the federal government would pay virtually the full tab.
Some costs would slowly shift to the states, though, with the state share hitting 20 percent in 2027-2028.
The structure of the grants, in other words, is remarkably similar to the framework that congressional Democrats have relied on to entice states to expand their Medicaid programs under Obamacare.
Yet 12 states, concentrated in the South, have resisted calls to expand Medicaid despite the generous financial incentives. Many of those same states have also put restrictions on tuition benefits for undocumented college students.
North Carolina is one of them.
State Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, a Democrat, has tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill in the Republican-controlled legislature to allow DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities.
He enthusiastically backs the efforts by congressional Democrats to make college easier to afford for undocumented students. But Mohammed worries about making aid to those students a condition for grants to the states.
“Two years of free community college education for every single North Carolinian should be a basic 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 shouldn’t deprive those individuals because our state legislature hasn’t been compassionate or reasonable when it comes to tuition for undocumented students.”
Mohammed hopes that, if the federal legislation passes, his fellow lawmakers would re-examine North Carolina’s approach to federal incentives.
“Why should our federal tax dollars go to other states that have in-state tuition for undocumented students, that have expanded Medicaid?” he asked. “It makes absolutely no sense.”
Nationally, education advocates have largely supported the efforts to help immigrants attend community college.
Martha Parham, the senior vice president for public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, said giving undocumented students a chance to go to community college would boost their productivity and earnings, and that would benefit the regional economy.
Making tuition free would boost those benefits, she said: “Our students are older, with an average age of 28. The huge majority of them are working. Whatever we can do to remove barriers for them to complete their education… would be an investment in the nation’s middle class.”
Feldblum, from the group of college presidents, said state programs have already shown those benefits.
Many states now allow undocumented students to receive in-state tuition. Meanwhile, some, but not all, state-level “promise” programs that provide free tuition for community college 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 in-state tuition programs and promise programs, they have proved their worthiness and their economic value,” Feldblum said.
Several states have only extended in-state tuition and other benefits to DACA recipients—people who came to the country as children and attended U.S. schools—but that leaves out a growing number of immigrants, Feldblum noted.
To qualify for DACA, students have to show they have been in the country since June 15, 2007. That is now more than 14 years ago. A federal court has blocked the Biden administration from expanding DACA any further. So many younger students who are entering college now don’t qualify for DACA.
More than in-state tuition
Another benefit of the free community college program, which is sometimes referred to as America’s College Promise, is that it would go beyond just offering students in-state tuition.
“In states that have in-state tuition, that’s still largely inaccessible, because college is not affordable to folks who can’t get financial aid,” said Wil Del Pilar, the vice president of higher education policy and practice for The Education Trust. “Undocumented students don’t qualify for federal aid, and in some states, they don’t qualify for state aid, either.”
Del Pilar said the free community college program could be the “biggest shift in higher education since 1965,” when the Higher Education Act first passed.
But Del Pilar, who previously worked in Pennsylvania state government, cautioned that states might 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 for supporting higher education, and those could be tough to attain for states that have not spent a lot of money supporting public colleges and universities.
Vermont, in fact, would have to nearly double its higher ed spending. South Dakota, meanwhile, would have to bump up its spending by 50 percent and Pennsylvania would have to increase it by 41 percent, according to an analysis by the Century Foundation.
“It is difficult to predict whether state legislators and governors will opt in or out of [the free community college plan] in the same way they did for Medicaid expansion, but Congress should consider an option for covering a higher share of costs in states such as these to incentivize participation,” Peter Granville of the Century Foundation wrote.
Del Pilar said the better solution might be a universal program for community college tuition. That would benefit not just undocumented immigrants, but other students that struggle to pay for college, too.
It doesn’t make sense, he said, that students in California would be able to take advantage of free tuition and maybe even financial aid to pay for non-tuition expenses, while students in Georgia are left out of the program completely.
But House Democrats, Del Pilar said, are working with the state-based system of higher education with their proposal.
“The House is using incredible leverage to create access,” he said. “To me, it’s a way to encourage states to move in the direction of fairness.”