Undocumented students anxious about tuition

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4min 45sec

Colorado lawmakers are trying once again to make college more affordable for undocumented immigrants. Students say it’s their only hope for a brighter future. Opponents say people here illegally shouldn’t get any advantages. The bill has its first hearing tomorrow. Here’s the transcript of Colorado Public Radio education reporter Jenny Brundin’s preview.

Reporter Jenny Brundin: Yesenia is a straight-A student, in the top five at her Denver high school. The 16-year-old has big dreams. She wants to study architecture at CU Boulder.

Yesenia: It just fascinates me that you’re able to create something out of scratch.

Reporter: Yesenia lived in Colorado virtually all of her life. But in her first year of high school, she found out something that shocked and confused her : she’d be paying a lot more for college than many of her peers. In fact, her dreams would cost her nearly $30,000 a year, the same as an out-of-state student. That’s because she’s undocumented, and that’s why we’re only using her first name. Yesenia says it wasn’t her choice. She was three years old when her family crossed the border to visit her father who was gravely ill.

Yesenia -It was only supposed to be for two months, but it ended up being 12 years. So I mean, I don’t remember anything about my native country. All my family that stayed behind, I don’t remember them. I see the U.S. as my home. To be told that no you can’t do this because you don’t have that piece of paper is just really depressing.

Reporter: But she’s found a glimmer of hope….in Senate Bill 15.

Organizer: After it passes the Senate, where does it go? Student: It goes to the House.

Organizer: It goes to the House….

Reporter: She’s part of this group of high school students….organizing an e-mail blitz to lawmakers, asking them to vote for Senate Bill 15, dubbed the ASSET bill.

Student: After school. Organizer: After school. Student: After school we could have like one of us volunteer to be there.

Reporter: The ASSET bill would create a third tuition rate for undocumented students who’ve graduated after at least three years of high school in Colorado. They’d pay “standard-rate” tuition. That’s in-state college tuition rates minus the subsidy the state gives students. Lynea Hansen is with the group Higher Education Access Alliance, a coalition of six non-profits backing the bill.

Lynea Hansen: So there would be no taxpayer dollars in this standard rate tuition. Students would actually be paying the entire rate.

Reporter: So at CU Boulder for example, Yesenia would pay about $9500 a year, compared to $7700 for in-state students. Considerably less than the nearly $30,000 an out-of-state student would pay. Under the bill, students wouldn’t be eligible for financial aid. Last year, the proposal passed the Senate but died in a Republican-controlled House committee. It’s an emotional issue for many, like Castle Rock Republican Representative Carole Murray, who voted “no”.

Murray: It breaks your heart to see those children that have been basically raised in our country but can’t be afforded the recognition of in-state tuition.

Reporter: But she says, when one believes in the rule of law, one has to draw the line. She describes the courthouse statues of Lady Justice, who is blindfolded.

Murray: It’s because no matter who comes before her – it’s not emotion, who you are or whether you are high or low in society, it’s the law on the books that has to be followed.

Reporter: State fiscal analysts estimate between 200 to 600 hundred students could take advantage of the standard rate. That could add up to $2.5 million into college coffers. This year’s version of the bill says colleges could opt out of offering the third tuition rate. Senator Keith King, who sits on the Senate Education committee, says that change isn’t going to change his vote. It’s simple, he says.

King: If they’re a Colorado resident and they’re legally here, they should pay in-state tuition.

Reporter: He says undocumented students shouldn’t be given preference over kids from other states.

King: I came to Colorado when I got my undergraduate degree from Nebraska. I paid out of state tuition, so why should we not treat everybody fairly?

Sound of students meeting

Reporter: Back at the student meeting, it’s uncomfortable for Yesenia to think of what her life will be without a college degree. She has a quick response for lawmakers who say that with a college degree, undocumented students still won’t be able to work legally. Yesenia says anything could happen that may open the pathway to citizenship. And becoming educated gives her hope.

Yesenia: It’s better to have that hope than nothing at all. …it’s a hope that a lot of us need.

Reporter: Senate Bill 15 has its first hearing tomorrow afternoon at the State Capitol.

[Photo: CPR]