Undocumented high school students graduating from Rhode Island schools will be able to take advantage of the state's in-state tuition program beginning next year.
The Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education voted to adopt a policy Monday that allows undocumented students to pay state resident tuition to attend Rhode Island's public colleges. The decision was unanimous among the present 11 of 13 board members, and came after hours of contentious public debate, the Associated Press reports.
For undocumented students to qualify for resident tuition, however, they must have attended a Rhode Island high school for at least three years and must have received a degree. The students must also seek legal status once they become eligible.
The state's General Assembly has failed to pass legislation granting in-state tuition to undocumented students for seven years, according to The Providence Journal.
"This policy change will improve the intellectual and culture life of Rhode Island while strengthening our workforce and helping our economy," Gov. Lincoln Chafee wrote in a letter to the Board of Governors, according to WPRI-TV. "Extending in-state tuition rates to undocumented students will allow more Rhode Islanders to achieve the dream of a college education, as well as the positive economic and civic opportunities associated with a college diploma."
Critics of the policy argued that this was just another move by the government to deny native and naturalized citizens of opportunities, and that it was stripping taxpayers of public funds that should be going elsewhere.
But a study by the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University found that granting in-state tuition to undocumented students would decrease the Latino high school dropout rate and not only be at no cost to taxpayers, but could help public institutions earn about $162,000 in added annual revenue.
For many undocumented high school students across the country, receiving financial aid or reduced tuition for higher education marks the difference between attending or not attending college. In-state undergraduate tuition for University of Rhode Island students is $9,824, compared to $25,912 for students from outside the state.
Monday's decision places Rhode Island among 13 states that have enacted laws that address in-state eligibility for undocumented students, ranging from establishing task forces to tuition exemptions for those who meet certain requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
One of those 13 is Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry defended an in-state tuition bill similar to Rhode Island's newly enacted policy during the Republican presidential debate last Thursday.
Elsewhere, Maryland's 2012 election ballot will put to vote legislation that allows certain undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, and Connecticut passed a law in July that qualifies undocumented students for resident tuition.
In California, the first part of the state's version of the federal DREAM Act passed in July qualifying undocumented college students for private scholarships. The second part of the legislation, which would offer eligibility for state funding, still needs California Gov. Jerry Brown's approval.
The federal DREAM Act has failed to pass through Congress for years, despite numerous reintroductions. The legislation proposes giving conditional residency to undocumented immigrant students who have lived in the U.S. for at least five continuous years since childhood, have no criminal record, have graduated from high school and have completed at least two years of college or military service.