When I first started working on state policy issues eight years ago, one of the first events I attended was a news conference for legislation dealing with undocumented students in higher education. The bill in question would have allowed students who had lived in North Carolina for a certain number of years and had graduated from a state high school to pay in-state tuition at community colleges and public universities.
It was a great event. Republicans and Democrats both supported the bill. Business owners took to the podium and said they needed well-educated Latino workers in order to be competitive. Legislators pointed out that these students were among our state’s best and brightest, and it would be foolish for North Carolina to abandon them on the university steps.
Then Rush Limbaugh found out about the bill, and heck broke loose. Legislators received angry calls from all over the country. The bill died.
Today, undocumented students are still fighting for access to affordable higher education. Just last week, five people got arrested during a protest at Wake Tech Community College’s main campus. A bill that would have allowed anyone who has lived in the state for at least two years and who has graduated from a North Carolina high school to pay in-state tuition went nowhere in the General Assembly this year.
There are more than a million undocumented kids under age 18 in the United States. They were brought here by their parents, some as infants. They have grown up as Americans. Their English is perfect. Many work hard, make stellar grades, give back to their communities, and have the same dreams as the students sitting next to them. But they don’t have the right papers and, through no choice of their own, are here illegally.
For most of them, their American dream ends after 12th grade. In North Carolina and more than 30 other states, they are denied in-state tuition to public universities and community colleges. They are ineligible for federal or state financial aid. Private universities are far too expensive, and private scholarships for them are scarce.
So they become, as one of them put it, the most over-qualified dishwashers you’ll ever know. … But it’s self-defeating for the United States, and North Carolina, to relegate children who never chose to break the law to a permanent underclass.
You can learn more about higher education access and tuition equality on the Let’s Learn NC website.