State-House Hearing Provides Strong Support for In-State Tuition Bill

"Tuition Equity Bill" would equalize in-state tuition rates for all graduates of Massachusetts high-schools

DSC_0998-001Dec. 11, 2013 BOSTON — "I don't know what to do with you," a local high school guidance counselor told Natalia Berthet, as they were meeting some years ago to discuss her future . Coming from a guidance counselor, it was another way of telling Berthet she could see no future at all.

That is why the 25-year-old Leominster resident shared her story yesterday with the Joint Committee on Higher Education, as they met to hear public testimony on Tuition Equity Legislation introduced in the legislature by Senators Chang-Diaz and Forry and Representative Provost. For almost two hours, the joint committee attentively listened to a wide range of testimony in support of the bills from State Legislators, Heads of Administration, attorneys, business and community organizations, secondary and post-secondary educators, and young immigrants like Berthet, many of who donned black graduation caps throughout the crowded hearing room.

The graduation caps are a national symbol for "DREAMers" -- immigrants, like Berthet, who were brought to this country as children and attended school here.  Some -- namely those who are ineligible for or have not yet received "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" ("DACA") or any other immigration status -- face a future in limbo, as a current restriction in Massachusetts policy charges them international tuition rates at Massachusetts's public colleges and universities.  As Berthet explained, those rates are three times higher than the rates paid by classmates she had studied with since kindergarten.  Prior to receiving DACA status, Berthet had to drop out of school.  Now, her DACA status and consequent eligibility for in-state tuition gives her hope of resuming her education.

Berthet shared the table with Samantha Almeida, who also graduated from a Massachusetts high-school yet missed an age cut-off for DACA by six months. As Almeida explained, she came to this country from Brazil together with her younger brother, Joao. Now, as Joao has gone off to study at Bunker Hill Community College thanks to his DACA status, Samantha remains in limbo. "Our paths finally separated this year," she said.

Tuition Equity Legislation could provide a future for students like Almeida, while also benefiting the state's finances and economy, which is why 18 other states -- from Texas to Connecticut, and Kansas to Rhode Island -- have tuition equity policies in place.  The bills would take immigration status out of the tuition classification process by allowing students who have attended a Massachusetts high school for at least three years to attend a public institution of higher education in Massachusetts at in-state tuition rates -- provided they meet certain other requirements such as registration for the Selective Service and filing of an affidavit stating that they have applied, or will apply at the first opportunity, for immigration status.

Tom Piñeros-Shields, a professor at UMass Lowell, laid out a brief history of the Massachusetts bill in his testimony, and the past failure to surmount a veto by Governor Mitt Romney.  However, as reaffirmed by Commissioner of Higher Education Freeland and Secretary of Education Malone, Governor Patrick is a strong supporter of tuition equity legislation.  Last year, further impetus for this legislation was provided by the federal creation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, which provides a renewable status and work permits for many DREAMer youth.  As Commissioner Freeland summarized, "DACA is no substitute for more comprehensive reform. These kids are no different from your kids or mine [and] our Commonwealth is stronger when we embrace the talents of all people."

Representative Provost, a lead sponsor of Tuition Equity legislation, described how the passage of tuition equity legislation would now directly impact fewer students than in the past, as many previously undocumented students now have DACA.  Yet the arbitrary distinctions in Massachusetts's current in-state policy are perhaps even starker than in the past, as highlighted by stories like Almeida's, where two children of the same family have different eligibility.

Other testimonies described how the state would experience a net gain in revenue from tuition equity legislation, and how the legislation if passed would diversify the educational make-up of area colleges, benefit the state's economy, and not impact native-born students or applicants -- other than, as Emerson College student Andrea Gordillo pointed out, to make their classroom experiences richer by exposing them to more diverse viewpoints.

"These students who would benefit have already been accepted to the state college system on their own merits," said Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, also a lead sponsor of the legislation, "And yet they cannot afford to attend."

The moral rationale for the bill, however, was simply summarized by Samantha Almeida, who needs the bill for a chance to continue her education. "I did not choose to come to this country. But I did choose to love this country. And I want to achieve all that I can to repay it."