Grand Canyon University is used to playing unexpected roles. A for-profit, Christian university investing heavily in a physical campus  and a newly anointed Division I athletic program,  the college has few precedents to follow. But over the past year, Grand Canyon has found itself in another seemingly contradictory situation: in a state whose political leaders are staunchly opposed to illegal immigration, Grand Canyon’s undocumented student population has been booming.
Just over 300 students on Grand Canyon’s Phoenix campus lack legal documentation to reside in the U.S. Most were brought across the border by their parents when they were young. The 300 students make up 5 percent of the student body -- a proportion that far exceeds undocumented students’ representation at public colleges and universities and could be among the highest at any four-year college in the state.
Grand Canyon didn’t set out to recruit those students or encourage them to attend. But a combination of state laws and institutional policies made the for-profit college the least expensive option for many undocumented students with good grades and test scores. And the growth of that student population has led the college to mull playing a larger lobbying role for the DREAM Act or other legislation to give young undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
In 2006, Arizona voters approved a law requiring undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition at public colleges and universities and barring them from state financial aid programs. Under federal law, the students also can’t receive Pell Grants or student loans. In 2011, the state’s community colleges tripled tuition for part-time, nonresident students. A year at Arizona State University now costs $23,000 for out-of-state residents in tuition and fees alone; at community colleges, tuition is $317 per credit hour.
As a result, the number of undocumented students at public four-year colleges dropped precipitously. In 2010, of the more than 100,000 students enrolled at Arizona’s three major public universities, only 106 could not provide proof of citizenship.
As undocumented students were seeing options elsewhere in the state diminish, Grand Canyon was investing in its physical campus and in financial aid for its traditional undergraduates. Investors bought the college, formerly a struggling nonprofit Christian college, in 2004; it has grown steadily since, and unlike for-profit competitors, puts its Phoenix campus at the center of its strategy.
The college’s sticker price of $16,500 for a year on its physical campus is about the national average for a for-profit college. But unlike many of its peers, Grand Canyon offers a substantial amount of grants and scholarships -- the average undergraduate on the Phoenix campus pays an average of $7,800 per year.
“The word started to get around that if you had good grades, you could go to Grand Canyon for a very reasonable amount of money,” said Brian Mueller, the college’s president and CEO. “We started to get applications.”
Mueller stressed that undocumented students don’t get any extra financial help, but receive the same aid based on academic achievement that all other Grand Canyon students can receive. The discount rate for those students is slightly higher than the rest of Grand Canyon’s student body -- they pay an average of $7,000 per year, he said -- because their mean grade-point average from high school, 3.46, is slightly higher than the 3.4 GPA of all admitted students.
Arizona has gained national attention for its laws intended to discourage illegal immigration. Part of the state’s landmark immigration law was overturned by the Supreme Court in May. The state’s governor, Jan Brewer, a Republican, opposed the Obama administration’s efforts to allow some young undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation and apply for work permits, calling the measure -- which would help many of Grand Canyon’s undocumented students -- “back-door amnesty.”
Brewer has also been a Grand Canyon booster. When the college joined the Western Athletic Conference in November, Brewer was there to celebrate, calling the move “the next step in this university’s climb to prominence.”
Grand Canyon officials emphasize that they don’t see admitting qualified undocumented students, and offering them financial aid using the same standards they apply to citizens, as a political move. But they acknowledge the politics of appearing to help illegal immigrants can be tricky in Arizona.
“We’re not making this a political issue. We’re an educational institution that’s committed to educating people and making it as cost-effective as possible,” Mueller said. “We think those students, if they’ve got the grades, if they’ve got the financial resources — we’ve got to give them every opportunity to be successful.”
Still, he said, he’s been surprised many times in the past year, since word of Grand Canyon’s relatively affordable prices began spreading by word of mouth in downtown Phoenix. While prospects for working in the U.S. were dim for those students until the president's executive order in May, many excelled academically in high school, and their families have enough savings to pay the discounted annual tuition.
The college has also begun working with a nearby high school, where about 98 percent of students are Latino, in a college readiness partnership. Many of the students there are undocumented, and Mueller said he hoped the work could be a national example.
At Grand Canyon, undocumented students’ retention rates are good -- about 90 percent return after the first semester, he said -- and many are majoring in science or health fields. “That’s a hugely encouraging thing,” Mueller said. “That means they’re going to get jobs -- that’s where the jobs are.”
But whether the students will be able to work legally is another question. Obama has said he wants Congress to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority in the upcoming session. Given the legislative deadlock, it’s unclear whether anything will get done in the next two years. Still, Mueller said Grand Canyon plans to lobby for the DREAM Act, or for other legal provisions that would give young, educated undocumented students a path toward citizenship or naturalization.
In doing so, Grand Canyon could find itself in unusual allegiances. As a single campus, it’s spent less than other publicly traded for-profits -- like Apollo Group, parent company of the University of Phoenix, or Education Management Corp. -- for lobbying clout on Capitol Hill. Still, Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, criticized the college in his voluminous report last year on for-profit higher education. And it’s found more natural allies among Congressional Republicans -- who are less opposed to for-profit higher education in general, and many of whom like the college’s Christian bent -- than among Democrats.
So far, Grand Canyon hasn’t begun pushing for the DREAM Act. But Mueller -- who said the college has become a “hotbed” of undocumented students in the past 12 months -- believes it’s only a matter of time.
“It takes a lot of character to go through high school and stick with it and get the kind of grades they get, not knowing it’s going to work out from them to go to college,” he said. “It takes a lot of character for them to come here... We just need to get the legislation passed.”