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Lawmakers likely to wage in-state tuition policy fight again this year

Will Texas legislators repeal in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants? One Republican lawmaker is determined to make it happen.

Former and current lawmakers gather at the Texas Capitol showing their support for HB 1403 which passed in 2001 ensuring that all Texas would have access to in-state college tuition regardless of immigration status.

A North Texas Republican is hell-bent this session on forcing lawmakers to take an up-or-down vote on repealing a popular state program that allows some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges.

That could mean more sleepless nights for students like 21-year-old Itzel Ruiz. 

Ruiz, an undocumented immigrant who has lived in Texas for 17 years, has benefited from the policy since she transferred to the University of North Texas in Denton after attending a local community college on full scholarship and earning her associate's degree.

“We’re being attacked at the state level, and obviously, we’re being attacked at the federal level,” she said, making a reference to President-elect Donald Trump’s hard-line stance on unauthorized immigration.

Though state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, is hopeful the federal government will secure the border, he said Wednesday that eliminating in-state tuition for undocumented students would do away with a benefit he considers a lure for undocumented immigrants.

“For the time being, this is what my constituents want, they want to turn off the magnets,” he said. “People don’t send us down here to not deal with our issues. There are a lot of kids out there right now that cannot afford to go to school, who have played by the rules and their parents played by the rules.”

The 2001 state law allows noncitizens, including some undocumented immigrants, to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges if they can prove they’ve been Texas residents for at least three years and graduated from a Texas high school or received a GED. They must also sign an affidavit promising to pursue a path to permanent legal status if one becomes available. 

The most recent data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board shows that in 2013, just under 25,000 students — or about 2 percent of the students enrolled in Texas colleges — benefited from the in-state tuition policy. And a 2015 Texas Tribune analysis found that most of those, about 72 percent, were enrolled in community colleges rather than four-year universities.

Eligible students save tens of thousands of dollars over the course of their college careers. At Ruiz's University of North Texas, an undergraduate student who lives on campus pays $23,780 for 15 hours of coursework. Out-of-state tuition for the same student would be $36,020.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said he thinks the current tuition policy is flawed and needs to be revisited. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is on record saying he’d like to end the program. But Texas House Speaker Joe Straus recently said the policy is “perfectly acceptable,” according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Stickland said he's determined to push House Bill 393, his bill to repeal the 2001 law, to the lower chamber’s floor for a vote. If that fails, he said there are plenty of other ways to attach it to other bills as an amendment and force his Republican colleagues to go on record as for or against the measure.

“We’re going to vote on it, whether it’s [in a] stand-alone bill or not,” he said.

Far-right Republican lawmakers have tried to put the program on the chopping block for the past few sessions. The 2015 attempt was Senate Bill 1819, by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, which passed the Veterans Affairs & Military Installations Committee. Campbell's bill failed to make it to the full Senate, however, after a few Republicans withheld support, acknowledging there was no appetite for the measure in the Texas House.

At the time, Campbell argued that the program had become too expensive as more students have applied, and she estimated that it could cost taxpayers $100 million by 2020. 

Proponents of keeping the program say that’s a flawed argument.

Ann Beeson, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, said students don’t cost taxpayers any money, but instead stimulate the economy. According to a recent CPPP analysis of the 2001 law, students who benefited from the policy paid $51.6 million in tuition and fees. She said lawmakers assume in-state tuition is financial aid or grant money, when in fact they're not receiving any direct state aid.

“It’s important that the legislators actually understand the current program and see the benefits from it because that $51 million that [students] are paying in tuition and fees would evaporate if those students were required to pay out-of-state tuition,” she said.

The policy also has continued support from the business community.

Bill Hammond, the former president and CEO of the influential Texas Association of Business who now heads his own consulting firm, said he’s going to work to make sure lawmakers keep the policy.

“I think it would be very cruel and a tragedy if Texas would stop allowing kids either to get in-state tuition or be eligible for the Texas Grants,” he told the Tribune, referring to a separate financial aid program that some lawmakers also want to eliminate. “Both of those programs are essentially the difference between a kid being able to go to school or not.”

But Stickland said Texas needs to put Texans first.

“There is a difference between personally feeling bad for somebody in a situation and legislating a priority,” he said. “This isn’t an attack on individuals, even though I know they feel that way.”

Ruiz, the undocumented University of North Texas student, said it shouldn’t matter where a student was born but instead what they’ve accomplished.

“It all comes down to your GPA, your extracurricular activities,” she said. “What makes you qualified to be admitted into a university? I don’t believe [the questions] should be, Were you born here or not? And do you deserve an education or not? I definitely believe it’s a reflection of your effort based on your grades and your involvement in the community.”

Disclosure: The University of North Texas, the Center for Public Policy Priorities and the Texas Association of Business have been financial supporters of the Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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