California’s colleges and illegal immigrants

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Thousands of teenagers living in California illegally were brought to this country by their parents as young children. Some of them have worked hard and done well in school; on both human and practical grounds, it would be wrong to put a college education out of financial reach by requiring them to pay higher, non-resident tuition to attend the state’s public colleges.

It wouldn’t just be bad for the students themselves, who bear no responsibility for their illegal status. The public also loses when it pays for a bright student’s education through high school but then does not allow that student to become a college-educated adult capable of contributing more fully to the economy and society.

That’s why California decided 10 years ago to provide in-state tuition to all students who have attended and graduated from a California high school, regardless of their immigration status. Opponents had challenged that decision, claiming it violated a federal law that prohibits states from giving college benefits to illegal immigrants “on the basis of residence within a state.” But Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court rightly refused to hear that challenge.


The decision is the right one because, by law, states must provide K-12 education to illegal immigrants, and it would be completely counterproductive to then erect roadblocks to further education for California’s best and brightest students.

Still, this is a complicated case that does not come without cost to other students in the state. The California law was a fairly obvious ploy to circumvent the intent of the federal law; even the state Supreme Court acknowledged as much. But the Legislature did so, the court said, in a legally sound way, by offering the lower tuition rate not to illegal immigrants but to anyone who had attended three years of high school in California and graduated.

These days, under intense financial pressure, the University of California is actively recruiting and accepting many more foreign and non-resident applicants who will pay the higher tuition. At the same time, illegal immigrants are likely to need financial aid, and a state bill to provide that aid has been given new impetus by this week’s decision. Caught in between are the middle-class state residents who are finding it harder to gain a spot in school while at the same time paying sharply rising in-state tuition, in part to cover costs for those who cannot afford it.

Neither the U.S. Supreme Court decision nor the California Supreme Court decision it is based on in any way resolves the conundrum that greets illegal immigrants once they receive a college degree. The law still does not allow them to take a job in the U.S. that matches their new skills, especially professional and high-skill jobs in which legal status is most likely to be checked. Perhaps when Americans realize how many smart, well-trained people are being forced leave the country to find suitable employment, they will finally press the government to pass coherent immigration reform.