Diego Aguilar graduated from Brien McMahon High School last year as class valedictorian. He was accepted to Cornell University and the University of Connecticut. But when summer turned into fall, Aguilar found himself at Norwalk Community College instead of the Ivy League.
As an undocumented, some say illegal, immigrant Aguilar was not eligible for UConn’s in-state tuition rate or Cornell’s financial aid program. Financially, the colleges were out of reach for him.
However, a new bill passed by the state Senate at the end of May allows Aguilar and other undocumented students to attend Connecticut’s public universities and colleges at the same rate — about a third of the out-of-state price — as U.S. citizens and residents. Gov. Dannel Malloy has been a supporter of the bill and is expected to sign it into law, making Connecticut the 13th state to allow non-U.S. students to pay in-state tuition rates. Advocates estimate that 200 students in the state will benefit from the reduced tuition.
The senate vote, 21-14, fell along party lines with Democrats voting in favor of the bill. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton and a Higher Education Committee member, said she was against the bill because she fears increased competition for seats. “There are already kids on waitlists. It’s unfair for legal residents to be bumped from their spot by someone who is here illegally."
Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, however, said the admissions process is based on merit and is blind to financial need. He pointed out that the state is not subsidizing the students or taking money from its residents. “By paying the in-state tuition, they are paying for the cost of their education,” he said.
Aguilar agreed. “Competition is good for the environment. It means more ideas. There are many kids who want to learn, but the economic barriers prevent them.”
But perhaps the climate is changing. “I always kept my legal status to myself,” he says. “But now I don’t hide it.” Aguilar testified in front of the General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee on March 15. “I wanted them to see the situation through my eyes,” he said. “It’s still a struggle. My parents work constantly to pay for my tuition.”
Aguilar moved to Norwalk from Mexico when he was 8 years old. He didn’t know any English but studied hard and by middle school was at the top of his class. He excelled particularly in math and science.
Brien McMahon guidance counselor Daniella Tejada said the government has already invested much in educating the undocumented students through high school. “Our goal in high school is to prepare all our kids for college," she said. "For these kids, though, we suddenly stop their education.”
Over the years, she has worried that some undocumented students don’t see the benefit of working hard in high school because they’ll never be able to afford college. “They give up early on high school and feel defeated.”
Dawn Leeds, Diego’s guidance counselor at McMahon, believes the law will have a positive impact on the state’s workforce. “These kids will attend college in a more regular and timely manner and enter the world of work sooner.”
But Boucher called the law “patently illegal” and in conflict with the federal law. “We are putting the cart before the horse," she said. "We should be working to improve our immigration laws at the federal level first.”
Duff, however, fears a “permanent underclass” without a law such as this one. “We either educate them or deport them,” he said, noting that mass deportation is not a reality.
Advocates fear that some students might not take advantage of the in-state tuition because the bill requires an affidavit on their undocumented status. Aguilar is not too concerned, though. “We usually take advantage of anything that can help us.”
Aguilar may go to UConn next year now that the tuition will be more affordable, but he is also applying to colleges internationally hoping for a financial aid package. “I have ambition for myself and have set my goals high.”
Do you think undocumented students should be allowed to pay lower in-state tuition rates? Leave a comment below.