Photo: Metro State College President Stephen Jordan at Wednesday's special legislative meeting
 

On Wednesday, state lawmakers grilled officials from Metro State College of Denver over the school's new tuition rate for undocumented students. The college’s president defended the new policy at a legislative meeting Wednesday. An estimated 120 Metro students would benefit from the new rate, but the state’s Attorney General argues illegal immigrants aren’t legally entitled to the benefit of discounted tuition. 

Here is a transcript of Colorado Public Radio’s education reporter Jenny Brundin's report.

Reporter Jenny Brundin: Sarahi Hernandez came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 8 months old. She’s now 19. Colorado she says, is the only home she’s known. But last year, her first year at Metro State, she paid the out-of-state tuition rate of almost $8,000 a semester. That’s because her parents didn’t come to the U.S. legally. She and they knew this day – of having to pay the out-of-state rate - was going to come so they began squirreling away money.

Sarahi Hernandez: I bake, I babysit, I do anything that I can.

Reporter: She knows she likely won’t be able to keep paying that higher rate. And she has undocumented friends – “A” students – who haven’t even been able to start college.

Hernandez: You see these bright students that are losing out on an opportunity because they can’t afford it so this is opening the doors for them.

Reporter: “This” is Metro State’s decision earlier this month to let undocumented students who’ve spent three years at a Colorado high school pay just over $3,300 a semester, a little higher than the in-state rate. That decision came just weeks after state lawmakers rejected a bill that would have allowed colleges to offer those special rates. Metro’s move to go it alone irked some lawmakers who asked for yesterday’s meeting on the issue.

Representative Cheryl Gerou: So rather than wait for the legislative process to go through its steps… 

Reporter: Here’s Joint Budget Committee Chair Republican Cheryl Gerou questioning Metro State president Stephen Jordan.

Gerou: …your board decided that you would go ahead and set this rate up, rather than wait for the legislature, is that correct?

Stephen Jordan: I think that is correct.

Reporter: Jordan offered lawmakers a detailed explanation for why the college made the move. First, he argued , it’s in line with the college’s mission to serve Colorado residents, who make up 97% of the student body. 

Jordan: To provide the opportunity for an affordable education at an unsubsidized but lower non-resident tuition rate, to a group of students who the state has already made a significant investment in, with the goal of enhancing economic conditions in the Denver metropolitan area and for the state of Colorado, that was our intent.

Reporter: Jordan said the college based the new rate on the actual cost of attending college plus a contribution for maintaining college buildings and grounds. He said Colorado colleges have long had the right to set non-resident tuition rates. Republican Senator Kent Lambert wasn’t buying it.

Senator Kent Lambert: You are not setting rates, you are setting a new category of rates outside your statutory authority.

Reporter: The state Attorney General’s office agreed in an opinion it issued Tuesday. Deputy Attorney General David Blake told lawmakers yesterday federal law is clear - a discounted tuition rate constitutes a “public benefit” that's only allowed for legal residents. He calculates that undocumented students save $9,000 a year by not paying “out-of-state” rates.

David Blake: If somebody enjoys a $9,000 benefit as compared to others and compared to what they’re currently paying, that has to be in a state-supported institution termed a public benefit under the broad and clear definition of what a public benefit is.

Reporter: And he says, colleges can’t do that unless there’s a state law allowing it. Democratic Senator Michael Johnston challenged the Attorney General’s opinion that charging students the actual cost of their education is a “public benefit.”

Senator Michael Johnston: If that’s the case, anyone who rides an RTD bus and pays the regular fare if they’re undocumented, that would count as public benefit because they’re paying the actual cost of the rate – they should have to pay an extra fine. Anyone who uses a park and is undocumented and they’re paying the actual cost of sustaining that park, they’d have to pay an added fine, or uses a highway. 

Reporter: Blake said the situations are not the same under the law. At the end of the meeting, Metro’s president said the college will examine the Attorney General’s opinion, but that officials haven’t changed their mind yet. Sarahi Hernandez, the undocumented student, was listening throughout the meeting. She says people like her won’t give up.

Hernandez: There’s a saying that we say in Spanish that’s, “la esperanza es la ultima que muere,” that’s “hope is the last to die.”

Reporter: In a carefully worded statement, Governor John Hickenlooper said he appreciates the motive behind Metro’s decision, but that he also respects the Attorney General’s opinion. He said it would be better not to proceed institution by institution, but to pass legislation at the state and federal level. 

[Photo: CPR]