The president of Metropolitan State College of Denver says that the decision to create a new tuition schedule for undocumented students is both fair and well within the school’s authority to establish. Metro State President Stephen Jordan made his comments — and stood his ground — last Wednesday at a special hearing called by the legislature’s Joint Budge Committee.
The hearing was held in the Old Supreme Court Chambers in order to accommodate the nearly 200 people who showed up to hear testimony from Jordan, the JBC and the state attorney general’s office.
On June 7th the school’s board of trustees voted 7-1 to create a special tuition rate — higher than in-state tuition but below out-of-state tuition — for qualified undocumented students who came to the United States with their parents and are currently enrolled at or planning to attend Metro State.
“We believe what we have done is on strong legal grounds,” Metro State President Jordan said of the school’s decision to create the new tuition schedule. The move, added Jordan, is also not unique. Thirteen other states currently set lower tuition for undocumented immigrant students enrolled in state funded colleges and universities.
Under the new Metro State guidelines, undocumented immigrant students who can prove they have lived in the state for at least three years and graduated from a Colorado high school or earned a GED and have no legal issues can qualify for the new tuition rate. They must also state that they are planning on moving ahead with a plan to seek legal immigration status.
The new rates, which go into effect for the fall semester and sit exactly in the middle of in-state and out-of-state tuition rates, call for undocumented students to pay $7,157 per year for 15 credit hours each semester. In calculating the new rates for undocumented students, the trustees also included other fees that are factored into all tuition levels, including capital construction costs.
Additionally, in making the decision to create the new guidelines, the Metro State trustees took into account the long-term, positive impact of educating this unique but growing class of student.
In a news release, Metro State stated that there are positive societal impacts that come from educating immigrant students. The release said crime rates drop while civic involvement increases. It also stated the benefits of an educated class of undocumented immigrants are also reflected in higher salaries and improved health and life expectancy.
But Jordan’s explanation convinced neither JBC chair Rep. Cheri Gerou (R-Evergreen), who called the hearing, or her Republican colleague Rep. Kent Lambert (R-Colorado Springs). Both suggested the new Metro State tuition formula was simply another way to enact provisions of Senate Bill 15, the ASSET Bill. It was a measure designed to address lower tuition for undocumented students that died in the session.
Gerou intimated that Metro State planned all along to circumvent the legislature’s decision and added that the school’s move went contrary to state law in creating the new tuition formula. She said her position was also supported by the state attorney general whose opinion she sought before calling the meeting. Attorney General John Suthers had said earlier that Colorado statutes state clearly that tuition rates can only be set by the legislature.
Because of the partisan nature of the hearing, David Blake, representing Suthers, made clear he was rendering only his boss’s opinion and not taking a side. “I want to very much push back on that,” he said. Blake said his office was merely offering guidance on the matter and not weighing in on the merits of the Metro State decision.
“You are not setting rates,” Lambert said, Gerou’s most vocal ally. “You are creating new categories of rates outside your statutory authority,” intimating that the new immigration rates amount to a special privilege for the expected 300 students who may enroll under the new schedule.
The new schedule, Jordan said, is not giving anyone a special break and that those undocumented students who enroll under the new formula will be paying the actual cost of their education.
Supporting Jordan was Denver Democrat and State Sen. Mike Johnston who co-sponsored SB 15. “They tried to frame it as getting a benefit,” he said. In fact, Johnston said, it is just the opposite. “They already (undocumented students) get K-12 education for free.” It is just “bad public policy” not to look thoughtfully at a situation that is going unaddressed, said the former public school principal. He also suggested that the hearing was nothing more than a political ploy for the benefit of the party’s anti-immigrant bloc.
“It is heartbreaking,” he said, “when you hear a valedictorian or a student council president tell you, ‘don’t kid me; you know I got no chance … there’s no benefit to me being a valedictorian.’”
“I think it’s clear that they (Metro State) have the right to do what they’re doing and I think it’s going to move forward,” he said. He called defeat of the ASSET Bill short-sighted. “Six of the eight states bordering Colorado are all doing it.” Texas, where Republicans control the state legislature “voted 149-1” to create a tuition policy that addresses undocumented students. “Kansas also has a plan and they’re even recruiting Colorado kids to come to Kansas; New Mexico, too. They’re taking our kids away.”
Johnston, who also teaches education law, also took issue with the characterization that Metro State’s new tuition schedule is tantamount to a “special” consideration for undocumented students.
“If that’s the case, then anyone who rides an RTD bus and pays the regular fare, if they’re undocumented, that would count as a public benefit,” he said. The same holds true with parks or any public venue, he said. If a person is undocumented, Johnston said, they would also have to pay a special fee to use them.
Because of President Obama’s recent edict allowing undocumented high school and college students who came here with their parents to remain here without the fear of deportation, a near-term challenge in the Metro State policy may be problematic for opponents.
Barring any unforeseen snags or court challenges, the Metro State tuition takes effect for students attending in the fall. Anyone impacted by the new schedule has until June 29 to enroll.