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.

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