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Tuition breaks for immigrants will have limited local impact

A new directive that allows qualifying illegal immigrants in Massachusetts to pay lower residential tuition rates at state colleges and universities will likely affect less than 400 people statewide in 2013 — and will have very limited impact in Franklin County, college and state officials said Tuesday.

That estimate — which the state’s department of higher education said is based on a 2011 report by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation — is much lower than the approximately 15,000 to 17,000 illegal immigrants in Massachusetts that could technically qualify for tuition breaks.

Under the change, qualifying students would pay the same as state residents, instead of out-ofstate rates. The foundation’s report estimates that between 800 and 900 illegal immigrants graduate from Massachusetts high schools each year. It predicts that only about 40 percent of those students would go on to enroll in state higher education, and that some of those students would not qualify for the tuition reductions.

In Franklin County, where just over 1 percent of the state’s total residents live, that number would be even smaller.

At Greenfield Community College, there are approximately 10 current students who will now be able to pay the lower residential rate instead of out-of-state tuition, said President Robert Pura.

An average in-state GCC student, who enrolls in 12 credits during the fall and 12 during the spring, is paying $4,838 this year in tuition and fees — compared to $10,958 for a nonresident with the same course load.

Pura said it was impossible to predict how many new students the change could draw in.

But Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, believes it will only be a “handful,” spread out across western Massachusetts’ community colleges, state universities and the University of Massachusetts.

Change tied to federal program

The change went into effect Monday after Gov. Deval Patrick sent a letter to the Board of Higher Education. Students that are currently registered for the federal program could apply for a reimbursement for the current semester, state officials said.

It applies only to immigrants who have paid a $465 fee and registered with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals federal program — an initiative launched by President Barack Obama in June that grants qualifying immigrants under the age of 31 a twoyear reprieve on deportation. Qualifying immigrants would have moved to the United States before their 16th birthday and have a clean criminal record. They must either be a current college student, a high school graduate, a GED certificate holder or an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or armed forces.

Of the approximately 160,000 illegal immigrants in Massachusetts, state officials estimate that between 15,000 and 17,000 could qualify for the federal program.

But for a number of reasons — including the application process of the program, the application process and cost of college, inaccessibility to financial aid or a lack of interest from some students in pursuing higher education — only a small subset would benefit from the tuition breaks, state officials said.

That number would likely be in the hundreds, not thousands, they said.

Lauded by local officials

Regardless of the number it may affect, Pura applauded the change as a “fair, appropriate and responsible decision.” “If education is the key to building a socially just and economically sustainable future, we want to open the doors to all in our community to have access to that education,” he said.

Rosenberg agreed, saying that now is not the time to limit potential college graduates in the state.

“We should get as many people into and through college programs as possible, so they can fill our jobs and grow our economy,” he said.

Critics of the change fear that legal Massachusetts residents will now lose out on spots in state colleges and universities.

But Rosenberg believes such a fear to be unfounded.

“It’s a relatively small number of students. They’re not displacing other students,” he said. In four years — when the numbers level off after years of new students enrolling in the program — the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation report estimates that under 900 illegal immigrants will be enrolled in state higher education institutions: between 504 and 584 at the community college level, between 64 and 72 at state universities and between 188 and 220 at schools in the University of Massachusetts system.

Because illegal immigrants have been able to stay in the country, Rosenberg said it is the state’s “responsibility to do something that makes sense.”

“It really puts us between a rock and a hard place,” he said, “to have kids living in our community and going to our schools and then to tell them, when they finish, they can go to our public colleges and universities but they have to pay out-of-state rates.” The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation also predicts that the change could increase revenue for state higher education.

In the first year, it estimated that state colleges and universities would receive between $1.8 million and $2.1 million — and that number would grow by the fourth year to between $6.4 million and $7.4 million.

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