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A path to college

In a decision that could have ramifications for higher education across the country, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday that illegal immigrants who attend state high schools for at least three years and graduate can continue to pay the lower, in-state tuition rates at California’s public universities and colleges. The decision, which reverses a lower court ruling, is a huge victory for many deserving students who otherwise might have been unable to afford a college education

Under federal law, states must provide a free K-12 education to illegal immigrants, which, by some estimates, costs California close to $3 billion. We agree that this is a moral imperative. But we also wonder what the sense would have been in investing heavily in thousands of students, inspiring them to excel, and then putting higher education out of their financial reach.

Economically, it makes sense to encourage these students to go to college; if they become successful professionals, business owners and taxpayers in California, they will contribute to the state’s coffers. Morally, it also makes sense; it would be unfair to penalize children who arrived in this country as minors and had no choice in the decision to come, and who themselves committed no crime.

California is one of 10 states that provide in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, an indication of the extent to which states, in the absence of guidance from Congress, have moved to address the educational, economic and social needs of the immigrant populations within their borders. The 2001 California law can reduce the cost of a community college education by $4,400 a year and the cost of a UC education by as much as $23,000. The class-action lawsuit contesting the law was brought by out-of-state students who argued that the requirement that they pay higher, nonresident fees while illegal immigrants in California pay in-state tuition violated federal law.

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It is true that federal law prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving college benefits based on residency. California’s law, however, is based not on residency but on whether the student attended and graduated from a high school in the state. The justices ruled that because nonresidents who meet that standard also are eligible for in-state tuition, there is no conflict. That includes U.S. citizens who attended high school in California but whose families live elsewhere, and those who attended California boarding schools. Two similar lawsuits are pending in Texas and Nebraska.

The decision is only a step in the right direction. Both supporters and opponents note that there is an inescapable conflict brought up by the law: Once armed with college degrees, these students cannot be legally employed. Congress can and should correct this by passing the DREAM Act, which would set students who meet certain post-secondary requirements on a path to citizenship. California recognizes the importance of these young immigrants to our future, and the nation should too.


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