Twenty-one states extend in-state tuition to either undocumented immigrants or beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Legislation proposed by state Democrats would make North Carolina the 22nd state to offer that tuition rate, but Republican support is an unlikely prospect.
Under a bill in the state House, undocumented immigrant students would be eligible for in-state tuition to public universities and North Carolina community colleges as long as they graduated from a North Carolina high school, or earned an equivalency diploma within the state and attended a North Carolina school for two consecutive years prior to graduation.
"Everyone gets taught the lesson of the American dream," said Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Caswell, Orange), one of the sponsors of the House bill, addressing reporters on Wednesday. "If you work hard and you do well in school, you get an education, you can become whomever you want to become."
"That dream is withheld from undocumented students even though they're taught that along with all of their other classmates everyday in school," Meyer added. "They face a significant barrier to getting the education that they will use to help create a productive America when they are not able to pay in-state tuition rates like all of their colleagues who have graduated from North Carolina's public schools.”
Tuition rates at UNC System schools vary, but the gap between in-state and out-of-state rates can be vast. At UNC Greensboro, for example, in-state tuition and fees total $7,287 versus $22,446 for out-of-state.
DACA recipients in North Carolina would be eligible under a similar Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Wiley Nickel (D-Wake).
"DACA recipients are North Carolinians and should not be forced to pay out-of-state tuition to attend North Carolina schools," Nickel said at Wednesday's news conference with Rep. Meyer.
In response to a request for comment on the Democrat-backed legislation, Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Republican from the northwestern part of the state who chairs the education committee, said Democrats "need to reassess their priorities."
In an emailed statement, Ballard said: "Senate Democrats want to eliminate scholarship funds that allow working-class kids to go to the same schools as wealthier families, but then give taxpayer-funded subsidies to people who aren’t even in this country legally."
Ballard was referring, at least in part, to a bill sponsored earlier this year by Democrats, including Senator Nickel. Senate Bill 583, which died in committee last month, would have frozen funding for the Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides lower-income families vouchers for private school options, and diverted the money to public schools for hiring more personnel and building more facilities.
Critics of the Opportunity Scholarship program note that it gets millions of dollars a year out of the state budget but much of the money remains unspent. Senate Republicans pushed a bill that would expand the pool of eligible families that qualify for the program by raising the income cap. That bill passed the Senate earlier this month and is sitting in a House committee.