North Carolina, Don’t Give Up on Your Students

Three weeks ago, the NC Dream Team, a group of undocumented high-school students, launched a petition and phone campaign directed at N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, the UNC Board of Governors and the N.C. Community College System to demand in-state tuition.

Continuing the fight, the group visited Duke University to share their experiences of growing up undocumented in North Carolina.

North Carolina should grant in-state tuition to provide these youths equal educational opportunities and raise the state’s overall level of education.

Sixteen states – including states such as California and Texas, that like North Carolina have premier public universities – offer in-state tuition for undocumented students. By passing N.C. House Bill 904, North Carolina would allow all students that graduate from North Carolina high schools equal access to in-state tuition rates regardless of their immigrant status. Without this legislation, these students would have to pay twice the in-state tuition rate and would thus be less likely to pursue higher education. These students represent future taxes and competitive skills that would greatly benefit North Carolina.

The number of applicants under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals offers insight to estimates of the undocumented youths that would benefit from in-state tuition. DACA provides temporary reprieve from deportation and the ability to work, but does not provide in-state tuition or a path to legalization. According to a Brookings Institution report, more than half of applicants were under 21, the prime age for college. North Carolina, with 16,800 DACA applicants, ranks in the top 10 states of applicants.

It is important to remember that undocumented students are undocumented through no fault of their own. They arrived as young children with their parents, have been educated in U.S. schools, are members of our communities and have dreams of working for their country.

Beyond its moral value, in-state tuition is also an economic development issue. Many opponents argue that making more students eligible for in-state tuition would detract from benefits for citizen applicants and place a higher financial burden on the state. But according to the National Immigration Law Center, in states that have passed in-state tuition for undocumented students, the percentage of high school graduates who pursue a college degree has risen – which results in increased revenue from tuition payments.

Moreover, a study by the Roger Williams University’s Latino Policy Institute found that providing in-state tuition for undocumented students led to a 14 percent decline in high-school dropouts among undocumented Latino students in Rhode Island. More importantly, offering in-state tuition would greatly benefit the state’s economy. A more educated workforce is a key driver of economic growth. According to a report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2020, 61 percent of all jobs in North Carolina will require higher education. North Carolina has already invested in undocumented students’ education through high school. This next generation represents the future tax base and sources of competitive advantage and innovation in an increasingly global economy.

Contrary to popular belief, federal law does not prohibit in-state tuition. This decision is left to the states. Providing in-state tuition would give these young people a chance to succeed and give back to the only country they have ever known through tuition revenues, taxes and knowledge. As one of the states with the fastest growing Latino population, North Carolina has a strategic advantage – and opportunity – to lead the country on this issue.

North Carolina should pass House Bill 904 and join the increasing numbers of states granting in-state tuition. For the sake of justice, the economy and the nation, North Carolina should not give up on any of its students.

Kelly Bies is a senior at Duke University majoring in public policy. She has spent time both in Tucson, Ariz., and Washington, D.C., working on immigration issues. This commentary was originally published in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.