WASHINGTON -- Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday he's encouraged that some states are allowing the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges.
As an example, Duncan pointed to Rhode Island, where this fall the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education unanimously approved in-state tuition for illegal immigrants starting in fall 2012.
Another dozen states have similar laws or policies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In contrast, four states have laws specifically prohibiting illegal immigrant students from receiving in-state tuition, and two states bar those who are illegally in the country from attending public secondary schools altogether, the National Conference of State Legislatures said.
Duncan said some of the children of illegal immigrants came to the United States when they were infants. He said the United States is their home, where they've worked hard in school and taken on leadership roles. For too long, he said, the U.S. policy toward them has been backward.
"They are either going to be taxpayers and productive citizens and entrepreneurs and innovators or they are going to be on the sidelines and a drag on the economy," Duncan said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The topic has been an issue in the GOP presidential primary race, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry taking criticism from rival contenders for supporting a law that allows illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition at Texas universities if they meet other residency requirements
Under the Rhode Island policy, in-state rates will be available only to illegal immigrants' children who have attended a high school in the state for at least three years and graduated or received a GED. Students will lose their resident tuition unless they commit to seek legal status as soon as they are eligible.
The Pew Hispanic Center has said the number of Hispanic college students ages 18 to 24 increased by 24 percent, meaning about 35,000 additional young Hispanics were in college in 2010 compared to a year earlier. It's the largest such increase. Duncan said he was pleased to see the increase and will be monitoring the students to see if they graduate.
Duncan supported the DREAM ACT, which Congress failed to pass last year. That legislation would have allowed young people to become legal U.S. residents after spending two years in college or the military. It applied to those who were under 16 when they arrived in the U.S., had been in the country at least five years and had a diploma from a U.S. high school or the equivalent.
Also on Monday, the Lumina Foundation, which seeks to expand educational opportunities for students beyond high school, announced it will provide $7.2 million over a four-year period to 12 partnerships in 10 states with significant and growing Latino populations. The effort seeks to leverage community leaders across the education, business and nonprofit sector.