Illegal to Learn

The Colorado ASSET bill, recently introduced to the Colorado legislature as Senate Bill 12-015, creates a new category of tuition called “Standard-Rate” tuition. A student will be eligible for the new tuition rate if he or she meets the following criteria:
1. Attended a high school in Colorado for three or more years prior to graduation or earned a general educational development certificate in Colorado.

2. Is admitted to a higher education institution in Colorado within 12 months after graduating from high school or earning a certificate.

3. A student applying for the tuition classification who does not have documentation of United States citizenship shall submit an affidavit to the institution stating that she or he is requesting documentation of, has applied for, or will be applying for, lawful status as soon as she or he is eligible.

4. Students eligible for “Standard-Rate” tuition are not eligible for a college opportunity fund stipend or for any state-funded, need-based financial aid and shall pay the cost of in-state tuition plus an amount equal to the college opportunity fund stipend awarded to in-state students.

Currently, the law in Colorado prohibits Colorado students who cannot present proof of citizenship from being eligible for in-state tuition when applying to the state’s colleges and universities. And consequently these students, many whom have been Coloradoans for the majority of their lives, are forced to pay the substantially higher cost of out-of-state tuition in order to continue their education in the state they call home. Alienated by their own state, this condition makes it, if not impossible, then at least irresponsible financially for these students to choose to continue with their education.

The Colorado ASSET bill, sponsored by State Senators Giron, Johnston, Guzman, and Steadman, was shot down earlier this year by State House Republicans. Fundamentally, what this bill intends to do is promote and broaden access to higher education in Colorado. Specifically, the bill targets a minority often forgotten and often excluded from access to higher education, namely, students without proof of citizenship.

There are bold voices of opposition to ASSET; the most nuanced objection to the bill seems to approach the debate from a balanced-budget-conservative position. State Senator Shawn Mitchell in his speech to the state senate in April, articulated this position compellingly:
“We are considering a measure motivated by compassion without regard to the larger national and international context. In fact, this bill is motivated by compassion, but unfortunately everything about it is either misleading or misdirected. See compassion moves us to feed the hungry or to serve the poor or to heal or to teach. This measure, on the other hand, is about making a symbolic statement, about declaring sympathies…

The fundamental challenge that the students who might be in name helped by this bill, the fundamental challenge they face is that federal law declares they may not work in this country. This bill won’t change that.

We don’t help those children by prolonging an education in a country that says they are not allowed to work here. We don’t help their life conditions by giving them a credential that federal law bars them from using. We don’t help respect for law in Colorado by telling our citizens that vital priorities are underfunded and underserved, we don’t have money for Medicaid, we don’t have services for the developmentally disabled. higher education we hear is starving and drying on the vine, but we do have resources to help hardworking students who are here illegally. That is a political priority, that is a message that is a symbol that doesn’t do anything practical to improve the condition those students that are targeted by this bill.”

So, in light of ASSET’s failure in the state legislature we are provided with the occasion to come together to dissect the broader issue of access to higher education in Colorado as it descends into questions of equality (Do all people deserve a chance at a higher education?), questions of consequences (How much does compassion cost?), and questions of moral priorities (Is education valuable in itself?).

And it appears that equality would be better realized if a minority in Colorado’s graduating high school student body was not penalized for desiring to continue to grow through education and to invest in a higher education in the state that invested in them.

But when the tone of the discussion transitions away from the language of equality or minorities or personal growth, what you are left with are the political cost-benefit analysis and the direct fact that Colorado, along with other states in the West, has a substantial American-Aboriginal minority population that cannot be over-looked. Thus, progress in education – like ASSET, that targets a specific impractical policy – drowns in the toxic debate over immigration reform. To be for ASSET is not to be for illegal immigration. To be for ASSET is to be for the idea that all Colorado high school students, regardless of ethnicity or birthplace, be treated as Coloradoans by the state’s government and colleges, not as out-of-state aliens.

The only consequence of integration is compassion; and compassion serves as a corrective for anxiety and hostility. ASSET does not subsidize the students it affects and it does not give the students it would affect special treatment. Under ASSET, students affected will still pay a higher than in-state tuition rate, as they do not receive the state’s college opportunity fund stipend. So the question is not whether we can afford to allow these undocumented students to deplete our already waning higher education resources, as some politicians like to frame the issue, but rather, at what price are we willing to sell a seat at our universities to a minority with no leverage at the bargaining table? For some Colorado politicians the price is out-of-state tuition. Standard-Rate is not worth the tolerance.

ASSET is one issue that transcends politics and forces us to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, “What is the imperative we want to proceed from?” Do we believe that a degree is a means to a job, is a credential, is a paycheck, is eight hours of labor? Or, is a person with a college education an end in itself, a broader perspective, a firm foundation, an enriched mind, a freer person? Choose your category and show your true colors; your moral priorities will follow naturally. And if you find education is a valuable in itself, then you will also find that ASSET is imperative to improving Colorado.

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