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.