Wednesday, December 12, 2012


When Laws Crash Into Each Other

Legislators are masters of compartmentalizing.  This law addresses this, and that law addresses that.  And much of the time, it’s possible to construct a reasonable argument for a particular decision, taken in complete isolation.

But the world doesn’t work like that.  Sometimes “this” and “that” crash into each other, and create an untenable situation on the ground.  That’s happening right now.

Two major legal trends are on a collision course, and nobody in a position to stop them seems to be talking about it.  

The first trend is a long-overdue opening up of public higher education to undocumented students who were brought to this country as children.  Depending on the age at which they came, these kids may have gone through years of American K-12 education. In other cases, their experience of the K-12 system may have been inconsistent, for various reasons.

The idea behind the opening is a recognition of the reality that someone who came here with her parents at age seven really didn’t have much say in the matter.  And making someone a lifetime pariah -- uneducable and unemployable -- is both grossly unfair and unlikely to result in good outcomes.  There’s much more to address there, of course, but the recent trend makes sense as a first step.

The second trend is a clampdown on financial aid.  For example, this summer the lifetime limit for Federal financial aid for any given student was reduced from 18 semesters (or the pro-rated part-time equivalent) to 12.  That covers all credit-bearing study.

Students with significant ESL and/or developmental needs -- such as many of the newly eligible undocumented students -- often require several semesters of work beyond the usual four for an associate’s, or eight for a bachelor’s.  They need to get up to speed in some key academic areas, and that takes time.

The idea behind the clampdown was twofold.  At one level, it’s a cost-saver that allows the Obama administration to maintain the maximum Pell award.  At another level, it’s a response to perceived abuses of financial aid in the for-profit sector.

In isolation, both the “open to immigrants” trend and the “clamp down on financial aid” trend have some rationality behind them.  (I’m much happier with the first than the second, but that’s another issue.)  But they clash pretty directly on the ground.

The message being sent to colleges is to open up more to undocumented students, but not to spend too much time teaching them English or addressing other academic gaps.


Opening up and clamping down at the same time is bound to create some weird issues.  I’d expect that anyone who put the two next to each other would see that pretty fast.  But the discussions around each issue were completely independent of the other.  

As a country, we have some difficult choices to make.  But we aren’t going to make them well until we acknowledge that they exist.  These laws -- each defensible on its own terms -- are crashing into each other, and they’re doing it on campus.  I know I’m asking a lot, but it would be lovely if we could use reality-based conversations to make these decisions.  Reality doesn’t come in neat little compartments.

I'm of the opinion that those two laws don't clash so much as dovetail precisely the way they were intended to. Let's not delude ourselves that both parties mean well and are working for the public good. One is particularly clever at finding a way around the laws they don't like that they've failed to defeat.
Hmmmm - when last I was dealing with this, noncitizens were not eligible for aid so these are lines that would not have intersected. But we are sort of half way through the door on this - post 9/11 you have to have a taxpayer I'd to be licensed to do anything in the state of CA. This means that a brilliant but undocumented student who managed to get through school in the sciences could do nothing in healthcare or in some engineering fields. They couldn't even cut hair! I could never understand why we didn't just cut them off from the beginning or create a viable path to citizenship - this weird halfway accommodation leaves those students educated but unemployable which wastes everyone's time.
We are also facing a conflict between the well-intended changes to financial aid rules and the push for an increase in STEM grads by expanding access through the CC pathway. The problem is that non-traditional students generally need a year of before-calculus math classes because they were never on the AP track in high school. However, any number of rules at transfer schools (some driven by the "completion" agenda, others by the reality of the many upper-division engineering classes required for graduation) make it necessary to finish all pre-engineering math and physics classes before transfer. Result: they run into a roadblock where financial aid will not pay for the very classes that the STEM agenda says they need to take at the CC level. Transfer early and they hit the same roadblock before their last year of engineering school.

I've also seen a real life case of what Ivory alluded to: a student who finished his engineering degree but had to wait several years for a green card. In the meantime his skills get stale and he also lacks the gateway of having held an internship.
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