A lesson on tuition for immigrants

Charging illegal immigrants in-state rate is a net plus

ALLOWING UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS in Massachusetts to pay in-state rates for tuition and fees for public colleges and universities is an emotional issue, similar to just about every other issue surrounding immigration in the US.

But when we peel away the emotions and look at the facts, the case for extending in-state tuition to undocumented students is straightforward and persuasive. When I was head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, we produced two analyses on this issue, the first in 2006 and an update in 2011.

In 2006, those opposed to offering in-state tuition, led by then-Lt. Governor Kerry Healey, argued that there would be a significant and unfair cost to taxpayers. However, their argument was based on the flawed assumption that these students were already enrolled and paying out-of-state rates. The reality, of course, was that few, if any, were actually enrolled because they could not afford to pay these much higher rates.

If allowed to pay lower in-state rates, some of these youths would enroll at one of the 29 campuses for the first time. In the 2011 study, we estimated that by the fourth year between 750 and 875 undocumented students would be enrolled, which would generate between $6.4 million and $7.4 million in additional tuition and fees for the state’s public higher education institutions, a sum which undoubtedly would be higher today. This small number of new students, in a system with more than 250,000 students, could be accommodated at virtually no additional cost.

These are only estimates, of course, but the conclusions are clear: Allowing in-state tuition would produce additional revenues at little or no cost to the University of Massachusetts, the state universities, and community colleges.

There is a cruel paradox in the fact that these undocumented students receive free public elementary and secondary schooling by virtue of a 1982 Supreme Court ruling. The Foundation’s 2011 study estimated that the state’s cities and towns spend approximately $150 million each year to educate undocumented students in grades 1 through 12.

So we provide free education through grade 12 for these students but then effectively deny them the possibility of pursuing higher education. It’s a peculiar logic that ignores this major taxpayer investment while slamming the door shut just when these individuals can begin to pay back that investment.

Beyond the immediate infusion of tuition and fees, the Commonwealth derives major long-term benefits from educating these students. With the aging of our citizens and limited population growth, we depend heavily on graduates of our public higher education institutions, a much larger percentage of whom remain in Massachusetts than do graduates of our private colleges and universities.

And then there is the widely documented correlation between educational attainment and lifetime earnings. The more these students earn the more they will pay in taxes. This is a direct return for the investment we make in their elementary and secondary education.

Meet the Author
It’s time for common sense to prevail. Whether from a human, economic or fiscal perspective, Massachusetts should extend the benefits of in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants.

Michael Widmer was president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation for nearly 23 years before retiring earlier this year.