Bill could extend resident tuition to immigrant students

Indiana legislators could be on track to doing something important: changing the law to let noncitizen students pay resident tuition at Indiana colleges and universities.

Senate Bill 138, being considered by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, would extend in-state tuition to students who complete four years of high school in Indiana and earn a diploma or a high school equivalence certificate. Currently, noncitizens have to pay out-of-state tuition.

Indiana Statehouse dome

Committee testimony on this bill last Thursday was powerful. Young immigrants told of studying diligently in school and working for a better future, only to learn they couldn’t receive federal or state student aid and would have to pay pricey nonresident tuition to attend college in Indiana.

“We won’t stop here. We will continue to advocate and raise our voices,” said Wendy Catalan Ruano, an Indianapolis resident and an advocate with the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance.

Supporters said the bipartisan bill is timely as Indiana businesses struggle to find qualified workers and college-educated Hoosiers often take their skills and credentials to other states.

“We have the ability to address this problem and have people that are living in our communities that are able to help with the shortage that is out there,” said Sen. David Niezgodzki, D-South Bend, who authored the legislation along with Republicans Blake Doriot of Goshen and Mark Messmer of Jasper.

Typically, students affected by the law were brought to the United States as children and have never known any home but Indiana. In many cases, their families hold down jobs that citizens are reluctant to fill, paying taxes, obeying the laws and upholding their end of the social contract. Many of the students are “dreamers,” able to live and work in the U.S. but not yet offered a clear path to citizenship.

Karla Lopez-Owens said she arrived in the U.S. at age 8 and was counseled not to consider college. She got lucky and became a citizen after her mother married a citizen. She graduated from IUPUI and the IU McKinney School of Law and is director of community outreach for the Marion County prosecutor’s office. She spoke in favor of the bill to help other immigrants who aren’t as fortunate.

“Each of these students has a future and the potential to better their lives in Indiana,” she said.

Indiana is one of only three states that have passed laws to deny in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The law barring resident tuition passed in 2011, at the height of the tea party backlash against Barack Obama’s presidency.

Former Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, R-Syracuse, the first Hispanic Republican in the Indiana House, voted for the legislation. “I have regretted that vote ever since,” she said. “It was wrong then. It is wrong now.” Immigrants “love this country, and they will do everything they can to make this country better. This is their country,” said Kubacki, who served in the House from 2010 to 2014.

Representatives of Ivy Tech Community College and Vincennes University spoke in favor of the bill at Wednesday’s committee hearing. Mary Jane Michalak, vice president of public affairs for Ivy Tech, said tuition at the community college costs about $4,500 a year for residents but twice that for nonresidents. At Indiana University Bloomington, tuition and fees are $11,332 a year for Indiana residents and $38,352 for nonresidents – the sticker price for noncitizens who live and attend high school in Indiana.

SB 138 didn’t face any organized opposition at last week’s hearing, and committee members seemed receptive to it, but the legislation has a long way to go. The next step would be a vote by the committee – it’s on the agenda for a meeting Wednesday – followed by approval from the full Senate, the House Education Committee and the House.

But in a legislative session when most of the education news is bad or awful, SB 138 is a rare bright spot. Sens. Doriot, Messmer and Niedgodzki deserve our thanks for authoring this bill. And Sen. Jeff Raatz, who chairs the Senate education panel, deserves credit for giving it a hearing. Let’s hope it becomes law.

Legislators made a mistake in 2011 when they passed a mean-spirited bill aimed at keeping hard-working immigrant students from attending our colleges and universities. Now it the time to rectify it.

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