Changes to tuition act prove doubters right

Article author: 
Rep. Doug Whitsett
Article publisher: 
The Register Guard
Article date: 
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Article category: 
Oregon Issues
Article Body: 

A significant bipartisan majority of the 2013 Legislative Assembly voted to enact House Bill 2787, which became known as the “Tuition Equity Act.” It established in-state tuition eligibility for students who demonstrate the intent to become United States citizens and who met certain previous attendance requirements in schools both in Oregon and other U.S. states and territories.

The Legislative Fiscal Office’s report on the bill estimated that only 38 undocumented alien students would access the opportunity to pay in-state tuition to attend an Oregon university during the 2013-15 budget period, and that 80 students would participate during the 2015-17 biennium. The Act didn’t affect Oregon community colleges, because they do not have residency requirements.

Tuition Equity Act supporters argued it would cause minimal cost to Oregon taxpayers. They further implied they would neither ask for future eligibility expansion for in-state tuition nor request financial aid eligibility for undocumented alien students. I voted against HB 2787 — not least because I didn’t believe their words.

University and community college students who are neither United States citizens nor eligible non-citizens are ineligible for federal grant-in-aid programs. Undocumented aliens are prohibited from even filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. However, Oregon’s own taxpayer-funded grant-in-aid program for college students, the Oregon Opportunity Grant, is not constrained by federal law.

The Legislature’s Democratic majority enacted Senate Bill 932 this year, on party-line votes. It significantly enlarged the number of undocumented aliens who are eligible for in-state tuition. Further, the bill created new eligibility for Oregon undocumented alien university and community college students to receive Oregon-funded grant-in-aid and student loans.

I believe this bill will serve as a beacon for undocumented alien students to come to Oregon for what amounts to a free college education at the expense of Oregon taxpayers.

The Legislative Fiscal Office’s report on SB 932 estimates that as many as 1,000 undocumented alien students may receive Opportunity Grants the first year, and that as many as 4,000 may be participating within four years. At only $1,000 per term, the cost could reach $12 million per year. The fiscal report doesn’t appear to contemplate my predicted in-migration of students.

Not only does SB 932 make undocumented alien students eligible for Oregon taxpayer-paid tuition and expenses, it likely gives them preference over documented resident citizens. According to the bill’s fiscal report, grants and loans for unauthorized immigrants “may be skewed towards an expected family contribution rate of zero or close to zero, which would give this population a higher priority for grant awards.”

The Democratic majority further amended the existing program by enacting House Bill 2407. It ensures that the state will make grants to students with the highest financial need and, where possible, prioritize funding for students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. That priority will be based upon an “equity lens” established through Oregon Education Investment Board rulemaking. The “equity lens” appears to be focused on contributing financial aid to low-income undocumented alien students.

Democrats further amended the statute to include “foundations of community colleges” that distribute money to community colleges in the program.

Another bill, House Bill 3063, was created specifically to increase the number of under-served, low-income and first-generation college-bound students who enroll in community college and make progress toward a degree or certificate. This, too, appears to be focused on impoverished, first-generation and perhaps undocumented immigrants. It appropriates $3 million in general fund dollars to that program.

Many legislators who voted for the Tuition Equity Act in 2013 rightly feel betrayed. Assurances that their votes would not open the floodgates for undocumented alien students to attend Oregon colleges and universities with taxpayer-funded Opportunity Grants were insincere. Egregiously, some legislators contend they’re unable to remember making those assurances. So much for an open and transparent legislative process.

Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, represents District 28 in the Oregon Senate.