Tuesday, May 18, 2010


"Community" College

I don't make a habit of doing reruns, but this story in IHE generated a flurry of requests to comment on illegal immigration and public higher ed. I did a piece on that back in 2005, and it still pretty much reflects my thinking on the issue. I've made a couple of technical corrections, but the core of the piece still stands as it did five years ago. Would that we had made more progress since then...

Every so often I’m reminded that the term ‘community college’ is less transparent than I’d like to believe.

There’s an ongoing debate here about how to handle ‘undocumented’ students. It flared up again this week.

A little background: our funding comes from the county, the state, and the students. (Much of the student money is indirectly Federal, and there's some private philanthropic support, but the basic point still stands.) What that means is that tuition covers less than the full cost of the education the students receive, even if they pay full tuition out-of-pocket. Taxpayers make up the difference.

Like many public institutions, we charge lower tuition for residents of the areas we rely on for tax support. The theory is that residents have already paid to support the college, so they should get something back, like discounted tuition. People coming in from other jurisdictions are charged higher rates, to make up for the taxes they didn’t pay in our county.

The system works tolerably well with typical students from neighboring counties. A student who decides that my cc is stronger than the one in his county has the option of attending mine, as long as he’s willing to pay a higher tuition rate for the privilege. Many do, which I take as a sort of institutional compliment. (The premium is waived if the student’s home cc lacks the major he’s taking with us.)

The system breaks down, though, with students who are in this country illegally.

Many of those students were brought here as young children by their parents; they’ve grown up here, and gone to high school here. Since they aren’t legally county (or even state) residents, we have the option of charging them our out-of-state tuition rate (which is even higher than the out-of-county rate), or even of excluding them altogether. Or, we could simply look at their current domicile, and decide that they’re in-county.

The K-12 system doesn’t look at immigration status, so these kids can (and do) go all the way through public high school without issue. Come graduation, they may find themselves stranded, depending on how the local cc interprets the rules.

In the past few days, I’ve heard multiple permutations of this issue. Honestly, I see merit in every one of them, which makes me damn glad that I’m not in charge of this policy.

The argument for letting local undocumented students in as local students is simple: if they got local high school diplomas, they’re local. If they came here as young children, it hardly seems fair to punish them for what was, in reality, their parents’ decision. As a society, we don’t believe in a caste system, so we shouldn’t consign whole populations to working at Burger King for their entire lives. It’s a waste of talent, it’s an immoral visitation of the sins of the father upon the son (in these cases, that’s literally true), and it’s not as if our federal immigration system makes sense anyway. Let us educate, which is both our mission and our human inclination; other branches can worry about the niceties of green cards and the rest.

The argument for letting them in but charging extra is also simple: they shouldn’t be stuck in a low-wage ghetto forever, but they also shouldn’t be rewarded for breaking the law. If a kid who was born in the neighboring county, went to public school there, graduated, and comes to us gets charged extra, then surely the illegal immigrant shouldn’t get a discount! It’s bizarre to suggest that the kid from Ecuador has a higher claim on local tax dollars than the kid from the next town over.

The argument for banning them altogether is also, alas, simple: we shouldn’t reward breaking the law. More coldly, we shouldn’t tax the folks who play by the rules to enhance the earning potential of folks who don’t. If they want to get naturalized, then fine; if they can’t be bothered, for whatever reason, then let them live with the consequences of that decision. Depending on how one reads the various statutes, it’s possible to argue that this is a mandatory position.

Most of the people on campus I’ve discussed the issue with have clear, firm opinions. They seem to believe that the logic of their view is self-evident. While I’ve been accused of that in other contexts (smirk), I have to admit lacking confidence on this one. On humanitarian and educational grounds, I’d like to side with the open-door policy. But it’s an awfully hard policy to defend to the angry parent of a kid from the next town over who has to pay double tuition, or the angry politician looking for explanations for runaway budgets. As a community college, we’re bound, in meaningful ways, to the community. We just need a defensible definition of who that community includes.

It would be easy to defer the dilemma by kicking it upstairs – blame the federal government for arcane, inconsistent, and downright weird immigration rules, call for reform there, and wash one’s own hands of it. There’s certainly some truth to that position, but it doesn’t help when a kid shows up in the Admissions office.

(At a conference a couple of years ago, I devised a theory that states in which counties or localities directly fund community colleges will have more angst on this issue than states that rely on state funding. Any enterprising social scientists out there are invited to pick that up and run with it!)

My previous school was a proprietary, so the issue of differential tuition didn’t come up; since the local taxpayers were no more burdened than any other, they got no special break. As a cc, we don’t have the option of flat pricing.

I think this is a painful variation on one of the eternal dilemmas of the left – how to reconcile universalist ethics with local allegiances. When ‘community’ is in both your name and your mission, this conflict can’t be brushed away lightly.

How does your school handle this? Are there angles/arguments that could help clarify the issue? I’m honestly conflicted, and the issue is getting harder to ignore.

If they living in the community, then they pay local taxes one way or the other. If they can't go to the local college, then they are being taxed for something they can't use. So the tax argument isn't entirely consistent.

What about street people or folks on social assistance? Do they get in for the 'local' rate, or do they have to pay extra? If your college is like ours', there are some students who are entirely supported by taxes (and may well spend their lives that way) who are local residents and charged that way.
It’s bizarre to suggest that the kid from Ecuador has a higher claim on local tax dollars than the kid from the next town over.
What they don't pay sales tax? I am guessing they have some place to live which means they are paying rent, part of which is going to cover the landlords' property taxes. I am guessing they pay fees for many services like the rest of us do in our communities.

As Anonymous 3:43 AM noted, for those that have parents that receive more aid than they pay in taxes do you charge them the full rate? Kids from homeless parents?
Unless the "illegal immigrant" student and/or their parents are working for cash only, they are paying all the payroll taxes others pay, but getting none of the benefits.

Being in the country illegally doesn't exempt them from property taxes either on a home they own or on an apartment they rent. Also, many areas have rules that if your income is low enough, you can get a rebate on the property taxes - but, you need to file a tax return to get it and they can't. So, that money is kept by the state...

Finally, if a student or their parents were simply not paying the taxes they owe, would you charge them higher tuition?
After reading some of the opinions I am on the side of letting them stay in the CC. At least if they get deported later they should do well in either the U.S. or their coutry of origin. However, if I was a parent of a legal citizen that could not get into a CC I would be angry that illegals were taking spots.

The main problem is elementary schools are not required to check legal status and this is more of a taxpayer burden than on the college level. I believe that is one of the only ways we would be able to identify illegals efficiently as compared with profiling by police.

In regard to the illegal immigrant in Georgia that was just recently in the news, I was more disturbed by her driving without a license, and I am guessing has no insurance, than her attending college.
My heart goes out to these students because they did not get themselves into their situation. Never the less, I think illegal students need to be treated like the foreign nationals that they are.

Letting these students continue in college is something of a cruel joke. In California, since 9/11, you can't get a license to do many types of work if you don't have a social security number. That means that a smart kid who could theoreticaly go to med school can't practice in California, even if they finish their training, because they can't be licensed. Heck - these kids can't even cut hair. This is a waste of the student's time and of an enormous amount of tax payer resources.

I know it sounds harsh but I think these students, once they turn 18, need to deal with their status. They need to get a lawyer and get documented. It is not their fault that things happened but they got an education out of the deal and should be able to leverage it into something once they become adults. I wish we had a system that would offer these kids amnesty because it is also a massive waste of tax payer funds to deport them without allowing them a college education or allowing them to work in the US. But we don't have amnesty - and it makes no sense to help these kids, now adults, dodge the real issue of their undocumented status.
I definitely don't want to shut these kids out of the higher ed system, 'cause I think they'd just rely on law-breaking means to survive.

They're here, we need to work on finding a way to assimilate them into society.

People who are born here are citizens no matter what the status of the their parents. We may as well extend this a bit and give green cards to everybody who graduates from a US high school. I'd rather "them" be "on the books" and treated like functioning members of society.
I agree with Anonymous 7:52. I have a friend who works with immigrant students at our county high schools. These students didn't choose to come to the US--their parents brought them over when they were small. She says that it's hard to convince even the bright students to stay in high school. They can't afford to go to our very good community college, much less a state or private university, so from their 17-year-old perspective, why shouldn't they drop out and start earning money right away? Our current system really does punish children for the sins of the fathers.
Dean Dad;

This is a very good topic as it is one that a classmate and I did as a final presentation in one of our graduate school education classes.

You've basically laid out the main ideas that we covered. And, like you, I'm not sure of the answer.

The truly sad part, to me at least, is that everyone seems to have a "clear, firm opinion" (your words - spoken so true!). No one seems to be willing to listen to what others might have to say. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground on which everyone can compromise.

Which is one reason I think that the larger issue of illegal immigration has remained at the staus quo for so long even though the system seems to be broken.

And, you're right, the issue is getting harder to ignore. I actually support the Arizona law (as it is written, not how the news media and others are portraying it). I have relatives in AZ who have seen their middle-class neighborhood turn somewhat violent because of the drug gangs coming across the border. Something needs to be done.

p.s. Sorry to have made my comment about the larger issue of illegal immigration; but that and your post are clearly related.
"(The premium is waived if the student’s home cc lacks the major he’s taking with us.)"

Not to go off on a tangent, but that seems highly gameable. Why not just declare for a major in String Art (or whatever you have that home cc doesn't), take the classes for the major you actually want, then change your major in your last semester and apply to graduate with that? It seems like a 'shadow major' would be quite common.
Just discovered your blog. I'm the department chair of ESOL at a large multi-campus community college out on the west coast. Our CC doesn't differentiate between students who documents and those without who live in the state, and that's how it should be since these kids were brought here at a very young age. I always caution them about choosing their studies carefully,though, so that they don't find themselves doing a lot of coursework that ends in a licensing requirement (like becoming a pharmacy tech or an EMT).
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