Big Vote on Undocumented Students

And billions in bonds are on election ballots this fall.

October 21, 2022
Demonstrators hold pro-immigration signs that say "Education, not deportation."
Arizona is one of 28 states that don’t guarantee in-state tuition for undocumented students, but a vote this November could change that.
(Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Arizona voters will decide next month whether to allow undocumented students in the state to receive in-state tuition—one of three statewide measures on the ballot this November related to higher education.

The ballot measure, known as Proposition 308, is the result of years of grassroots organizing and backed by a broad coalition of business groups, politicians and immigration advocacy organizations. Arizona is one of 28 states that don’t guarantee in-state tuition for undocumented students, though those students who graduated from an Arizona high school and who have been living in the state for three years are eligible for a separate tuition rate that’s 150 percent of the in-state rate. Students with undocumented status, including recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also aren’t eligible for state financial aid in Arizona.

Proposition 308 would partly reverse a 2006 decision by voters to limit public benefits, including in-state tuition, to only documented immigrants.

Supporters say opening up in-state tuition and financial aid to undocumented students would remove barriers and strengthen the state’s workforce, the Arizona Mirror reported. About 2,000 Arizona high school graduates each year are undocumented, according to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal, which tracks a range of data points related to DACA and undocumented and other international students to inform policy makers and advocate for expanded access to higher education.

“For the Arizona undocumented student population, this would be a huge step forward for their access to college opportunities,” said Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “Colleges would certainly get access to more students, and they will be better able to serve the state workforce needs and better address equity gaps in the state. So there are a variety of ramifications riding on this ballot measure.”

Nationally, there are 140 statewide ballot measures in addition to hundreds of local questions that voters will weigh in on, but only a few would directly affect higher education. In addition to the Arizona proposition, New Mexico wants voters to approve $207 million in general obligation bonds that would pay for 28 projects across 15 institutions. In the third measure, the University of Rhode Island wants voters to sign off on $100 million in bonds that would upgrade its Narragansett Bay campus. Voters in New Mexico and Rhode Island have previously approved similar bond measures.

Harnisch said Arizona’s Proposition 308 is “the marquee higher education ballot measure this year.”

Initial polling shows broad support for Proposition 308, The Arizona Republic reported, but Harnisch said midterm election trends could present a challenge to proponents, given that turnout is typically smaller and less diverse than presidential elections.

“We want them to work in Arizona, as opposed to going somewhere else. So, obviously, we want to keep talent here. And these are kids who maybe moved to the United States or Arizona when they were very young and had no control over it and have attended high school here and graduated from high school,” State Senator Sean Bowie told the Republic. “They’re just like other kids. And we want to make sure those kids stay here.”

Related Stories

Bowie, a Democrat, cosponsored the legislation for the referendum.

Arizona state senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Republican, wrote in a Republic column that Proposition 308 “could further incentivize unlawful entry into Arizona.”

“As an Arizona state senator, the priority is to facilitate Arizonans getting into higher education and entering the workforce,” she wrote. “Proposition 308 has a misplaced focus. The place to resolve the status of whether a nonlegal citizen can receive in-state tuition is in Washington, D.C., not on the Arizona ballot.”

Elsewhere

Harnisch said other statewide ballot measures that aren’t directly related to higher education could still affect state revenue and have “downstream consequences.” That includes a potential income tax rate reduction in Colorado and a potential new income tax on Massachusetts millionaires—the revenue from which would go to education and transportation.

One of the more novel local ballot measures this year is the potential levy of a 0.2 percent sales tax in Fresno County to support California State University, Fresno. The tax would bring in about $36 million a year and $720 million over 20 years, The San Joaquin Valley Sun reported. Two-thirds of the revenue from the tax would go toward improving academic improvement and scholarships, while a third would go toward repairing and upgrading athletic facilities, including the football stadium. The specifics of the revenue allocation would be determined by a citizen oversight committee.

Supporters say the tax would boost the local economy and is needed because state funding is not enough to maintain current facilities. Opponents are critical of using the tax to pay for athletic projects, the Sun reported. The ballot measure needs a majority of votes to pass.

A local builder helped to craft the proposal and is a lead backer, according to the Sun. The university can’t take a public stance on the proposal.

The Fresno Bee editorial board recently endorsed the measure, saying it could help the university expand much-needed programs such as nursing and serve more students.

Billions in Bonds on Ballots

Bond measures are the bulk of higher education–related ballot measures at the local level, according to an analysis of Ballotpedia’s database of local ballot questions.

If approved, the bond measures on the ballot would fund a range of capital projects totaling nearly $9 billion. The Los Angeles Community College District’s $5.3 billion request makes up the bulk of that total.

The district of nine colleges with more than 200,000 students has borrowed more than $9 billion in bonds over the last two decades, but this year’s bond measure would be its largest bond ask, the Los Angeles Times reported. The money would go toward replacing or renovating 45 buildings built before or during the 1970s, improving campus infrastructure and upgrading technology, among other projects.

“Measure LA would provide the necessary funds to modernize our aging infrastructure and outdated buildings in all of our nine colleges," Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez said in a statement. "Specifically, it would help us address our dozens of pre-1970 buildings, upgrade our information technology—which is so important for our future workforce—and help us meet our sustainability goals. It would be an investment in our community to meet the demands an educated workforce in Los Angeles and improve the learning environment for our students.”

The Los Angeles Times has endorsed the measure.

One district trustee voted against putting the bond on the ballot, citing recent enrollment declines, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“This is an inappropriate time and essentially an irresponsible act on our behalf to pursue this bond,” Trustee Ernest Moreno told the newspaper.

The district has had a history of mismanaging bond-funded projects, with some going over budget and needing costly repairs, according to a Times investigation, but officials have worked to address those issues. A district survey conducted over the summer found that six in 10 voters would support the bond measure. Fifty-five percent of voters have to approve it for the measure to pass.

Another big-ticket bond measure is on the ballot in Travis County, Tex. The Austin Community College District is seeking $770 million to build two new campuses and expand workforce development programs, KUT 90.5 reported. About 5 percent of the bond would go toward support services such as campus childcare.

“This is an important investment,” Chris Cervini, the vice chancellor of community and public affairs with ACCD, told the NPR station. “Thinking about what’s happened through the pandemic over the past two and a half to three years, learning needs to be more responsive to the human needs of students.”

Back in California, Pasadena City College wants to take out $565 million in bonds to replace leaky roofs, remove hazardous buildings, upgrade technology, renovate buildings and establish permanent satellite campuses in the region. The Cerritos Community College District’s $425 million bond measure would fund similar projects, including the construction of several new buildings.

In Oregon, Portland Community College has a $450 million bond measure on the ballot that would fund infrastructure and technology upgrades, an expansion of technical education, and renovations to existing facilities.

In North Carolina, Wake County voters will decide on a $353.2 million measure to support a range of projects at Wake Technical Community College, including an expansion of the college’s health sciences program and the establishment of a new campus. Durham Technical Community College is seeking approval for $112.74 million in bonds to construct two new classroom buildings, make repairs and renovations and acquire land for future growth.

Share Article

Read more by

Katherine Knott

Back to Top