A recent legal memo from the North Carolina Community College System office broadening the definition of "open door" admissions sparked a firestorm across the state. Citing a 1997 state attorney general opinion that “denies colleges the authority to ‘impose nonacademic requirements on admissions,'” David J. Sullivan, assistant to the president for legal affairs for the system, wrote to the leaders of the 58 community colleges  that, “notwithstanding any policy of the local board, colleges should immediately begin admitting undocumented individuals” as out-of-state residents.
Many states are debating rules about in-state tuition rates for such students, but the North Carolina fight is over the right to enroll at all -- even at full price. The system memo followed the revelation that 21 of the colleges were barring illegal immigrants, at least as of the last statewide count in 2005. The varying policies are the result of a 2004 state system memo that left the question up to local colleges.
The new directive has become political dynamite in the state, with the five leading Democratic and Republican candidates for governor condemning it within days of when it became public last week, and residents flooding the phone lines of their political and college leaders. “The directive issued by the North Carolina Community College System to mandate all community colleges across our state admit illegal immigrants as students simply ignores our immigration laws. If we ignore these laws, what other laws should we consider as unnecessary to obey?” State Senator Fred Smith, a Republican candidate for governor, said in his statement. 
Meanwhile, the current governor, Michael F. Easley, a Democrat, defended the practice of admitting undocumented students who qualify and pay out-of-state tuition rates. And Martin Lancaster, the system president, released a statement Monday  emphasizing the community colleges’ inclusive missions and stressing that the affected students, mostly brought to the United States by their parents as children, did not make the decision to come to the country illegally and most likely won't be returning to their nations of origin. "To deny a significant portion of tomorrow’s workforce any higher education opportunities will not only hurt these young people who came to North Carolina through no fault of their own, but it will also significantly diminish their incomes forever. The consequences to North Carolina are reduced tax collections and potential payments for social services and incarceration long into the future."
But where, amid all this debate, do the individual colleges that barred illegal immigrants in the past stand? The new memo after all stemmed from a case in which an undocumented high school student attempting to enroll in a community college through the state’s dual enrollment “Learn and Earn” program was initially denied, as a system spokeswoman, Audrey Bailey, explained. From among the system’s 271,000 degree-, diploma-, and certificate-seeking students, only 340 are undocumented.
At Raleigh’s Wake Technical Community College, which up until the recent directive maintained a policy of not admitting undocumented students, President Stephen Scott described its former approach as a pragmatic one. The North Carolina community college tuition rate for full-time non-residents – including undocumented students -- is $7,464 per year, compared to $1,344 for in-staters. Illegal immigrants are ineligible for federal financial aid. "It was not presented to our board of trustees as an option for the simple fact that there were no students who were lining up to pay $7,000 to attend," said Scott. "It was not an issue."
At other colleges, however, it very much is. Eric McKeithan, president of Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, said that the college had up until now maintained its policy of not admitting illegal immigrants for three reasons, one of them being overcrowding. Since the system directive, about 30 undocumented students have applied to his rapidly growing college, where he estimates from 800 to 1,000 students had to be turned away this fall. He’s come up with a simple formula to predict future enrollment: "If I build a new classroom that will hold 500 people, I’ll have a 500-person enrollment increase."
"Regardless of what side you fall down on, there is the matter of, these people are undocumented aliens," said McKeithan. "We have a local obligation to serve local folks first."
Citing the popular nursing program, for instance, which accepts 90 students per year based on the quality of applications, and turns away hundreds, "Now under the new directive, I don’t see that we have a choice… If an undocumented alien ranks among the highest 90 people qualified and we let that person in, I can promise you there are going to be 200 or 300 [other] people whose families have been around for generations who have helped build this institution – it’s going to hurt that one person" not admitted.
“I don’t know if it’s a numbers game, it’s an emotional issue, it’s a political issue,” McKeithan said, adding that the college does intend to comply with the state directive. “I know the other side of the story and I empathize with kids whose families brought them here and they are unauthorized aliens. I empathize with that, but I think that’s where state legislatures and the Congress have to make decisions” rather than leave them to local discretion.
Meanwhile, at Rockingham Community College, over in Wentworth in a rural area near the Virginia line, President Robert Keys said he was happy to see the new statewide directive. “I think it’s the right thing to do, to clarify this on a system-wide scale. I think it came probably two or three years too late. But it’s better now than not at all,” Keys said Tuesday. Rockingham opened its doors to undocumented students just one year ago in 2006.
"What really prompted me to take a look at it was just the sheer numbers who were involved, the number of people coming into our county and our service area who had a need for educational services," Keys said.
"There are people here who feel we’re doing the wrong thing, that we’re spending taxpayer money to educate people who aren’t citizens in the United States. On the other hand, the tuition they pay more than exceeds the state reimbursement so they’re paying their freight." (The system estimates the cost of educating a community college student is $5,375 per year, about $2,000 less than the out-of-state tuition rate.) Keys added, however, that he’d like to see undocumented students – and non-resident students in general – eligible for in-state rates. (The issue of whether undocumented students should be eligible for in-state tuition rates is a debate unto itself ).
"The cost is prohibitive," agreed Lawrence Rouse, the president of James Sprunt Community College, a college in a heavily agricultural section of eastern North Carolina that already had a policy to admit undocumented students in place before the directive. "Once they are permitted to be admitted at the out-of-state rate, at least that opens the door up a little bit for them to get an adequate education. And if they’re going to be in the United States, we need everyone to be educated in order to be competitive," Rouse said. "I think if you don’t do that then you’re relegating them to a permanent underclass."