After flip-flopping on its admissions policy for nearly a decade, the North Carolina State Community College Board voted Friday to admit undocumented immigrants with one major catch: They must pay out-of-state tuition.
The 21-member board, consisting of a mixture of gubernatorially appointed members and state legislators, overwhelmingly approved the measure, effectively reversing a May 2008 decision to ban undocumented immigrants from the country’s third-largest community college system. This is the fourth time the North Carolina Community College System has changed its admissions policy for undocumented immigrants in nine years. Still, for formal approval, this measure must be voted on by the General Assembly, which does not meet again until next spring.
Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, a Democrat, was the only member to vote against the policy change. Though he did not publicly debate the matter before the board Friday, he did release a statement following the vote.
"These are extremely difficult economic times that require tough choices," Dalton wrote. "People are losing their jobs. Unemployment is at its highest since the Great Depression. These are the times when North Carolinians are turning to their community colleges for work force retraining. Yet, in order to balance the budget, we have already had to raise tuition, cut programs, and reduce access. Now is not the time to increase the demands on our already overburdened community college system."
The revised admissions policy says that the state’s community colleges may only admit undocumented immigrants if they have graduated from a public or private high school in the United States. They must also pay out-of-state tuition -- more than $7,000 a year for a full load of 16 credits per semester. This is nearly five times the in-state tuition. Furthermore, undocumented students admitted to a community college may not receive state or federal financial aid.
Some critics find that, as undocumented immigrants still cannot claim state residency, this latest policy change is insignificant.
“This is a hollow victory,” said Michael Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston and expert on immigration and higher education law. “If students can attend but not establish in-state residency, then it’s just the status quo. These kids cannot afford to pay out-of-state tuition. The board has acted foolishly, and this is just bad policy. There are a number of kids who are otherwise residing in states like North Carolina who pay taxes and put into the system that are still not able to buy and take out of the system at the postsecondary level.”
There are only nine states that have approved legislation explicitly allowing undocumented immigrants to claim residency so that they may pay in-state tuition at their public colleges and universities. On the other end of the spectrum, South Carolina is the only state to explicitly ban immigrants who do not have legal residency from attending its public institutions.
North Carolina Community College System officials acknowledge that, even with the latest policy change, there is a still a cost barrier that could keep many undocumented immigrants from the classroom.
“Part of what the board was trying to do was have a consistent admissions policy across all of public higher education in North Carolina,” said Linda Weiner, the system’s vice president of engagement and strategic innovation. “The [University of North Carolina] system recently decided to let in undocumented students at the out-of-state rate. This was done to sync with them. We know the out-of-state cost is an additional barrier to undocumented students, so you have to have students who are very dedicated to make it work.”
A few years ago, when undocumented immigrants were allowed to attend two-year colleges in North Carolina, Weiner said the system used to enroll as many as 110 per semester. If the latest policy revision is accepted by the General Assembly, she said the system could see about that number in the future.
Despite the policy’s firm stance that “students lawfully present in the United States shall have priority over any undocumented immigrant in any class or program of study when capacity limitations exist,” there are a number of critics who still oppose the board’s decision.
The News & Observer, a Raleigh newspaper, reported that about 50 protesters were on hand for the board’s vote Friday, waving flags and shouting through bullhorns. Many argued that “admission to community college was another way illegal immigrants are sponging public resources and taking opportunities from native-born residents.”
Olivas, however, countered that these protesters simply do not understand the statute -- confirmed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in a letter to the North Carolina Community College System last year -- that defers to the states the issue of allowing undocumented students to enroll in college.
“They can’t read the statute and think that it’s some vast left-wing conspiracy," Olivas said. "Still, they need not worry too much because virtually no [undocumented immigrants] will attend, because of the cost barrier. Those who complain about this and say this didn’t go far enough need to ask themselves whether there is anything shy of forced removal that they would be pleased with. I think we know their answer to that.”
The North Carolina General Assembly will take up the matter when it meets again next May. Weiner said she has no indication on what its response to the board’s decision will be. Still, Gov. Beverly Purdue, a Democrat, has expressed her disapproval of the policy change.
"In all honesty and with due respect to the Board of Community Colleges, it's hard for me to understand why we would give an education to those who can't work legally in the country," Perdue said to WRAL, a Raleigh television station. "Either way, it's a hard choice. Kids need an education, but if they can't work [because of their undocumented status], why do it?"