Citizenship and higher education

Compassion is an admirable virtue. So is pragmatism. The two are in something of a tangle to influence state legislators to grant in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants.

Compassion is an admirable virtue. So is pragmatism. The two are in something of a tangle to influence state legislators to grant in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants.

Yet, such a decision would neither yield compassionate nor pragmatic results.

That is not to say that there would be no benefits: If more students, of whatever legal status, go through college, chances are they will be more educated and therefore more productive, right?

Not so fast. That is the sort of standard line of thinking that certainly has the best interest of the state in mind, but there are some assumptions to consider here.

Portland State president Wim Wiewel told the Oregonian, “You have the choice to let students continue their education or deny it and make it more likely they will be more dependent on the state in the future.”

It’s certainly true we don’t need more people dependant on the state. But, assuming that denying the in-state tuition is indeed a primary factor determining dependency, it’s not clear the money lost by the state to provide lower tuition is a good deal.

There is a sentiment, shared by many as common wisdom, that college is the key to productivity and success. Unfortunately, more 18-24 year olds in the United States are still not attending college—only 34 percent in fact, according to the 2008 National Report Card on Higher Education.

Likely you know, as I do, several individuals with little to no college experience, working hard, and earning a reasonable living. There’s no reason a four-year college has to be for everybody.

There’s no reason to assume granting in-state tuition will increase productivity and really benefit the state, so conferring one of the privileges of American citizenship without actual citizenship, as Richard F. LaMountain writes in a guest op-ed for the Oregonian, renders the concept of citizenship less meaningful.

It’s estimated that Oregon has about 1,000 undocumented students graduate from high school per year. Gosia Wozniacka of the Oregonian reports that right now only 5 to 10 percent of these tend to go to college.

Supposing all 1,000 decided to attend a state college, and Oregon spent the average of what individual states tend to spend on students, according to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, (4), at over $6,000 per student, we’re talking about $6 million per year.

If the same students would cost the state more than $6 million per year at some point in the future, then maybe we’d be in for a bargain.

But there are few hurdles: first, gauging future productivity is sticky. Where is the proof they’d make enough anyways to pay the higher tax rates, become net supporters rather than dependants on the state?

The next issue is one of encouragement: in-state tuition over time will most certainly encourage more illegal immigration, and more students in the pool, driving up the cost of education for everyone.

No one blames children for the choice of their parents, and few blame parents for taking children in the direction of opportunity. But encouraging it in the name of immediate compassion is not good long-term state policy.

This compassion is evident in bits of reporting—the captioned picture accompanying Wozniacka’s article says, “Vidal Fuentes Ramos … couldn’t afford to attend PSU because he is an undocumented immigrant who must pay higher out-of-state tuition. ‘I consider myself an Oregonian. Regardless of my status, I can help this state.'”

And the emotional argument is indeed appealing, but the extra burden on the state caused by increased unregulated immigration, likely at above levels the state can grow economically, will not help the state.

At the same time, when illegal immigration laws have clearly not been enforced on local levels, it seems a bit cruel to take retroactive action by denying certain privileges, so perhaps a compromise can be struck:
Undocumented students wishing for in-state tuition must prove their deserving of state investment by meeting high standards of achievement in high school, and with the best of recommendations from teachers.

Then we can be sure we are doing everyone a favor.