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The Struggle for Tuition Equality

Should public institutions make undocumented state residents pay out-of-state tuition?

In Michigan, Western Michigan, Wayne State, and Saginaw Valley State allow non-citizens to pay in-state tuition. Yet, its flagship campus—the University of Michigan—does not.

“We just want tuition equality.” That is the proclamation of Daniel Morales, a freshman at U-M, who recently co-founded the Coalition for Tuition Equality.

It is time to insert the phrase “tuition equality” into our educational civil rights lexicon. According to the coalition’s Facebook page, “tuition equality will ensure that every undocumented student that attends and graduates from a Michigan high school receives in-state tuition rates at the University of Michigan.”

In Michigan, just as in probably other states, undocumented students grow up there, reside there, attend and graduate from a public high school there, and their parents pay taxes there for those schools. Then, when these same students without citizenship or a green card apply to U-M—a public institution primarily paid for by the state’s residing citizens and non-citizens—they are assessed an out-of-state rate. That is a classic case of discrimination. 

It is amazing how states and localities are more than willing to take tax money from undocumented people to pay for schools, but then refuse to provide them with public services. So students are correct to press for equality, tuition equality.

Morales was born in Mexico unlike his three siblings who were born in the United States and are citizens. About a month before he had to decide on attending U-M and paying the steep out-of-state fees, Morales was granted a 10-year green card. He thus became eligible for in-state tuition.

“I couldn’t help but think, ‘What the hell changed?’” he told the Detroit Free Press. “My parents paid taxes here. I lived here. I should have qualified for in-state tuition all along.” 

Like the Students Against Mass Incarceration (SAMI) at Howard, which I blogged about last week, the Coalition for Tuition Equality is struggling at the heart of a budding social justice campaign—securing rights and opportunities for the undocumented, who are tax-paying, economy-enhancing, and culturally-enriching contributors to American society. It is a coalition of students and at least 11 human rights, immigration, political, ethnic, and religious student organizations at U-M.

For months the coalition has been making its case at U-M Board of Regents meetings. Finally, last month, Regent Julia Darlow ordered a report to be produced on tuition equality for undocumented students, while Regent Olivia Maynard requested the report to explain how many undocumented students are facing what I will call tuition inequality. The report could be presented as early as next week.

But no matter the outcome, the fight will continue. They, we, are fighting against a wave of ignorant, racist, nativist, or crudely selfish American sentiment and policies that contend that undocumented students should have it worse, and certainly should not have the same educational opportunities as the citizens. And that is from those who do not have a problem with them being in the United States.

An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate each year from American high schools. They are prohibited from receiving federal loans and grants, and, to make their ascent to college more difficult, they are too often mandated to pay out-of-state fees, tripling their costs at institutions like the University of Michigan. So the undocumented can give to America through their taxes, through their labor, through their shared creative humanity, but they cannot receive from America? That is wrong. That is an injustice.

There should be tuition equality, tuition equality, tuition equality. 

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of history at SUNY College at Oneonta. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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