LITTLE ROCK, Ark.
The head of Arkansas’ flagship university said the state must do everything possible to encourage more students to seek bachelor’s degrees – possibly even by offering undocumented immigrants the lower tuition rates given to in-state residents.
Chancellor G. David Gearhart of the University of Arkansas stopped short of endorsing a proposal by an unopposed state senatorial candidate to allow in-state tuition rates for those without legal residency in the United States.
Gearhart said most higher education officials want to be “frankly, forgiving if we can” when it comes to students living illegally in the state.
“I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to argue against any qualified student getting a four-year degree at our institution simply because of their parents,” Gearhart told The Associated Press during an interview last week. “To me, it’s not really the student’s fault that they came here and their parents had an issue with immigration. To me, that’s penalizing the student.”
The chancellor, who took over as the university’s top administrator July 1, described his decision also as one of necessity in a state that ranks 50th in the nation in the number of residents with bachelor’s degrees.
“Our position is that we’re in the business of education,” Gearhart said. “We know that by helping a student, any student, get a four-year degree is going to help the economy, it’s going to help the state.”
In recent years, both the University of Arkansas and the University of Central Arkansas in Conway had offered students in-state tuition rates even if they didn’t list a Social Security number in their applications. In May, the head of the state’s Department of Higher Education issued an order requiring schools to ensure students receiving in-state tuition were legal residents.
Since then, Gearhart said the university identified about 25 students who may be living in the country illegally and attending classes at UA. Officials at the school worked to find private donations to cover the gap between in-state and out-of-state tuition about a $4,500 difference per semester per student, Gearhart said.
Former state Rep. Joyce Elliott, a Democrat with no opposition in the November election for a state Senate seat from Little Rock, has said she probably will offer a bill next session to offer in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants. While Gearhart said he has talked with Elliott about the idea, he repeatedly and explicitly declined to support her proposal during the interview.
“I’d like to see the legislation before I completely sign on, but I’m certainly in favor of helping students get a college degree,” Gearhart said.
Elliott said changing the law would help other students, not just illegal immigrants.
“I don’t think anyone is against students having the opportunity,” Elliott said. “It’s just that we’re having to try to find a way to work within the laws.”
Illegal immigration is a politically sensitive topic in Arkansas, where more than 150,000 Hispanics now live, many drawn by construction work and jobs in poultry plants. Recent reports suggest that half of the state’s immigrant population lives in the United States illegally.
Gov. Mike Beebe, who has said repeatedly that “illegal means illegal,” opposes offering in-state tuition to those who cannot prove legal residency. As attorney general, Beebe issued a 2005 opinion that said offering the benefit likely would violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Gearhart said he’s spoken with Beebe’s office and hasn’t heard “anyone who wants to penalize students.”
Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Beebe, said Gearhart had not met with anyone in the governor’s office about the in-state tuition ban. DeCample said Beebe stood by his position.
“From our end, it’s a legal issue far more than a philosophical issue,” he said.
In the interview with the AP, Gearhart also declined to say whether he’d support a measure on the November ballot to create a statewide lottery. The lottery, which would fund college scholarships, had received the backing of former Chancellor John White.
Gearhart also said he wants the university to focus on creating more scholarships for those with financial need, apart from those given for academic merit.
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