By Allison Thomasseau, The Boston University Statehouse Program
After failing for years to win legislative support, Gov. Deval Patrick announced last November he would allow the children of illegal immigrants in Massachusetts to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.
Although immigrant advocacy and anti-immigrant groups differed sharply on the fairness of the governor’s action, they agreed it would bring massive change, allowing thousands of children of undocumented immigrants to pay tuition at half the cost of nonstate residents.
But after seven months, the governor’s controversial act seems to have had minimal impact. A survey of 22 of the 29 Massachusetts state colleges and universities by the Boston University Statehouse Program found that fewer than 50 students have taken advantage of the opportunity. This number compares to a systemwide population of close to 300,000 students.
Most of those 50 students are in community colleges, with more than 30 attending two-year colleges. About 10 are enrolled in the University of Massachusetts system. Two attend state universities.
“It’s a little disappointing the numbers aren’t higher,” said Eva Millona, executive director of Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
There are, however, two important caveats.
Massachusetts colleges and universities do not consistently keep data on undocumented students, so there is little verification when students claim legal status or leave the question about their citizenship unanswered.
“We don’t have the resources, and it’s not really our role to be assessing the immigration status of people in the commonwealth,” said Ed Blaguszewski, a spokesman for UMass Amherst.
The numbers could also change as more learn about the program and apply for certification — a lengthy process recipients need to go through to qualify.
“One barrier is it takes time to get documentation, and there are not the legal services available to help them with the application,” Millona said.
Tanya Broder, senior staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, an immigrant legal-advocacy organization, expects applications to increase once people learn more about their options.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s some ramp-up time,” she said.
Patrick’s decision followed President Obama’s announcement last June of a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allows undocumented immigrants under age 30 to receive work permits and driver’s licenses if they were brought to the United States before age 16, have no criminal records, and pay a $465 application fee.
States can choose to give those applicants in-state tuition. Massachusetts is one of 12, including Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York, that grant this tuition break.
According to the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan research organization, about 1.8 million immigrants in the United States could qualify for the program, including an estimated 12,000 to 19,500 in Massachusetts.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported it has received 5,411 applications for the deferred action status from Massachusetts. It has accepted 2,536. Nationally, 472,004 applications have been accepted.
The low number of qualified immigrant students in state universities may be due to lagging application numbers. Immigration services began accepting applications last August, but the process could take upward of eight months for each application.
The other issue is whether the students feel the need to seek special status.
Students applying to the UMass system are required to list their citizenship status and are classified as out-of-state if they are not U.S. citizens. But little is done to verify the status of each applicant.
“We receive self-reported information from students regarding residency and whether they are citizens,” Blaguszewski wrote in an email. “Secondly, if discrepancies or questions arise about residency when billing students, we follow up to make a determination regarding their address.”
Some schools, including the community colleges, allow students to leave the citizenship portion blank on paper applications.
Others said it is difficult to pinpoint the number of students who qualify for in-state tuition.
“The numbers are in flux, because mid-semester a student could qualify for DACA (the federal program),” said Chris Yurko, a spokesman for Holyoke Community College.
Yurko said the college’s admissions director had spoken with 20 students about the program, but less than 10 are participating. The other students either did not meet policy requirements, such as holding a work permit, or did not follow up with the school.
So far, it would seem the governor’s new policy has had a minimal financial impact for colleges. And some of that impact could be considered a plus for the state.
A 2011 Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report estimated that 40 percent of Massachusetts’ 910 undocumented high school seniors, an annual 315 to 365 students, would attend college if allowed to pay in-state rates. This would add $1.8 million to $2.1 million in tuition revenue the first year. Over four years, it would add $6.4 million to $7.4 million.
However, fewer than 50 new students on campus bring in a fraction of that revenue.
Steve Kropper, co-chairman of Massachusetts Citizens for Immigration Reform, a group opposed to illegal immigration, says whatever the participation rate is now, or in the future, the policy is wrong.
“The greatest concern is the message you send to the illegal immigrant: If you come here illegally, there will be amnesty and rewards over time,” he said.
Kropper is also concerned that if the number of undocumented students grows it would sap university resources.
“Dollars are limited. To let one person in, another person is getting hurt,” Kropper said.
UMass Amherst tuition and fees come to $13,230 for in-state students, compared to $26,645 for out-of-state students. At Fitchburg State University, it is $8,710 for in-state students and $14,790 for out-of-state students.
Community colleges are a more affordable option, with in-state students at Massachusetts Bay Community College paying $5,568 and out-of state students paying $12,160.
Renate Teodoro, lead coordinator for Student Immigrant Movement, said paying for school, even at in-state rates, is challenging without financial aid.
“I’m not sure we can even get loans, which is a huge barrier in itself,” said Teodoro, who received federal deferred action status in March.
She is paying off previous semesters at UMass Boston before registering for fall classes.
Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for state or federal financial aid. Most scholarships are only for U.S. citizens. Teodoro won an Abigail Adams scholarship, a merit scholarship for state high school students that waives tuition for eight semesters. She could not use it without U.S. citizenship.
Teodoro said the federal immigration policy needs to be changed in other ways to make college a realistic goal for immigrant children.
“We need to be making sure parents of DACA recipients can stay, because how are you expected to pay for school without that support system?” Teodoro said. “The students can work and are trying to work, but the jobs are still low paying.”
Cairo Mendes, 19 of Marlboro, is one of the few immigrant students receiving in-state tuition at Massachusetts Bay Community College.
Mendes, whose mother brought him and his sister to the United States from Brazil in 2002, is able to take a full course load with the lower tuition rate.
“It’s a huge weight off my back and a huge relief,” said Mendes, who had been paying the out-of-state rate for two classes before qualifying for the federal program.
A freshman studying business administration, Mendes said undocumented students have a tougher time staying in school when faced with higher tuition rates.
“They need to pay a lot more, so they might go part time,” Mendes said. “We’re creating a second class of citizens and we’re creating a group of citizens who aren’t as educated as we want them to be.”