This time last year, one promising north St. Louis County student was in a position that a lot of hopeful college students dream about. He was a high school senior with good grades, a distinguished athlete on his high school wrestling and football teams.
He got into every four-year college he’d applied to before he realized he couldn’t afford any of them. Now 19, he is enrolled at a community college, hoping to make it to a university one day. His mistake was not realizing soon enough that, unlike his peers, he wasn’t eligible for state and financial aid.
Originally from Pakistan, he came to the U.S. 14 years ago with his parents, when he was 5. He is allowed to stay in the U.S. as an undocumented student under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. The program extends work permits and deportation relief to those brought to the U.S. as children. Although he is in the U.S. legally, he asked not to be named for fear of employment issues.
“I did everything right to go to college,” he said. “I was raised here. I’ve never been back.”
His status as one of an estimated 13,000 such students in the U.S. who are pursuing a college degree puts him on the wrong side of a lopsided battle with Missouri lawmakers. Legislative leaders propose making it more expensive for undocumented students to go to college even as school leaders say they want to offer access to promising students regardless of their immigration status.
With public colleges limited by state and federal law in how much help they can offer to undocumented students, a number of the state’s private institutions have picked up the slack, offering scholarships and other financial help to noncitizens.
Missouri’s fight over undocumented students stretches back to last year when current House Budget Committee Vice Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, successfully included language in the state’s higher education budget barring public colleges and universities from offering in-state tuition to “unlawfully present” students.
His reasoning: Students who are in the country illegally should not receive better tuition rates than legal residents.
This year, legislators are trying to go further. One measure that recently passed the House is a Fitzpatrick-sponsored bill that would require colleges and universities to charge undocumented students the same tuition charged to international students — generally much higher than in-state tuition rates.
The Missouri Senate also recently passed a measure, sponsored by Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, that would not allow undocumented students to receive the state’s A+ scholarships.
In all, legislators have filed five bills this year that would make it more expensive for undocumented students to enroll in one of Missouri’s public colleges or universities.
If legislators are successful, Missouri would buck a national trend. According to the National Immigration Law Center, at least 20 states, up from 16 last year, allow certain undocumented students to receive in-state tuition.
‘HOW MANY GENIUSES?’
Legislators’ stance on this issue is in direct opposition to a number of Missouri higher education leaders.
University of Missouri-Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin said policymakers should be making it easier, not harder, for students to attend college.
“I’m passionate about this,” Loftin said. “Every human being has great value that can be maximized through education.”
He said the issue reminded him of a recent trip to South Africa when he was driving through a poor township where people were living in extremely dismal conditions.
“I thought to myself, how many geniuses are out there,” he said. “How much ability is being wasted because people don’t have access to education.”
At the moment, public colleges are doing what they can within the law to offer access to undocumented students. In 2013, the University of Missouri-St. Louis began offering out-of-state tuition to undocumented students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Alan Byrd, dean of enrollment services, said state law prevented schools from offering financial aid to “unlawfully present” students. DACA students, however, are considered to be “lawfully present” with a temporary status.
Of the 17 such students UMSL admitted in 2013, just one enrolled, Byrd said, because the others couldn’t afford to pay the out-of-state tuition rate of nearly $25,000.
Last year, UMSL changed its policy to offer a $9,400 annual tuition to qualifying undocumented students from Missouri high schools. The so-called Metro Rate had been previously set up to offer discounts to students from the St. Louis area, including the Metro East. After the policy change, Byrd said, six additional undocumented students enrolled.
It’s the right policy, according to Faith Sandler, executive director of the nonprofit Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis.
“There is no homeland for these students to go back to,” she said. “From a practical, a moral and an economic standpoint, this is in the best interest of them and the state.”
A number of Missouri’s private schools including Webster, Fontbonne and St. Louis universities, have also latched on to the idea of undocumented students as a population worth serving.
The schools offer qualifying undocumented students the same merit- and need-based scholarships that other students have access to.
“We would have no difficulty defending our position on this,” added Fontbonne President Mike Pressimone.
Cari Wickliffe, director of SLU’s Student Financial Services offices, said the school’s policy was in line with the Jesuit mission.
For Mayra Lopez Castellanos, 26, an undocumented student whose parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 8, the push to make college more expensive for people such as she is disheartening.
She works 40 hours a week while also pursuing an accounting degree at Webster.
“I’ve been here for 18 years, this is my home. I love this country like anyone else,” she said. “I consider myself an American. I pay my rent, I pay my utilities and I file my taxes every year.”