North Carolina’s community colleges must admit illegal immigrants as long as they are 18 years old and high school graduates, a legal decision that reverses a 2004 rule that gave campuses the option to say no.
Leaders at 37 of the 58 community college campuses statewide already had agreed to permit these immigrants to enroll in their schools.
But giving colleges the discretion to deny admission based on legal status in August 2004 runs counter to the system’s open-door admissions policy, community college attorney David Sullivan wrote in a memo to all campuses earlier this month. Before 2004, undocumented people weren’t supposed to enroll in degree programs at all.
“Colleges should immediately begin admitting undocumented individuals,” Sullivan wrote.
Sullivan said in an interview the change was based on a 1997 letter by the office of then-Attorney General Mike Easley to a local campus that said the college couldn’t set nonacademic requirements before a student can enroll.
The change is good news for the children of foreign workers brought to America while they were minors and want to contribute to North Carolina society, said Melinda Wiggins, director of the Durham-based Student Action with Farmworkers.
The admissions policy is largely in line with one for University of North Carolina system campuses, also approved in 2004.
North Carolina college campuses “have been providing educational opportunities for international students for a long time,” Wiggins said. “This just allows folks who live in our community and work in our community to be educated here.”
Conservative groups have complained that illegal immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to enroll and receive the educational benefits set aside for U.S. citizens or others legally in the country. By training students to enter the work force, the state is encouraging companies to hire illegal aliens, one group said.
“Are we telling kids that it’s OK to break the law?” said Robert Luebke, an education policy analyst with the Civitas Institute, a conservative public policy group. “This new policy is asking our community colleges to ignore the fact that these students are here illegally.”
Civitas called on Attorney General Roy Cooper to review the change and determine whether it’s justified. Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley said late Tuesday that she wasn’t aware of the 1997 letter that Sullivan cited.
The community college system doesn’t know how many additional undocumented workers will enroll as a result of the rule change, but spokeswoman Audrey Bailey said administrators don’t expect a large increase because so few enroll now.
Only 340 students identified as undocumented individuals have been counted as students, compared to 268,400 students who are in degree programs, according to the state Community College System. The students also will continue to be charged the higher out-of-state tuition and aren’t allowed to receive financial aid.
The Civitas Institute, which reported the change in a news release Tuesday, said it may cost the state an additional $6 million to $8 million annually to implement the rule change. The community college system said that full-time students paying out-of-state tuition actually pay about $2,100 per year more than what it costs to teach them.
Sullivan said he reconsidered the 2004 rule after reviewing an allegation that an undocumented immigrant was enrolled in an early-college program operated by a local school district and community college campus.
Some Duke University students researching the issue also questioned system officials about whether illegal immigrants could be denied admission, he said.
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