Public universities in Missouri haven’t been able to offer in-state tuition to students living illegally in the U.S. since 2015. Some state lawmakers are now trying to make sure that doesn’t change anytime soon.
A bill currently making its way through the state Senate would ban publicly funded colleges and universities from offering in-state tuition to undocumented students, making permanent budget langauge that currently must be approved each year.
Some students who immigrated to the U.S. as children and have lived in Missouri most of their lives think that would be unfair.
“I’ve lived here since I was two. I don't know anything about my home country," said UMKC senior Maria Franco, who is originally from Mexico. "In my mind, I am almost a resident of Missouri. This is my home."
But the bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Bob Onder of St. Charles, sees things differently.
“At a time of scarce resources, who are we going to choose to subsidize? Lawful Missouri residents or those illegally in our country?” Onder said. “State tuition is a benefit we should limit to those who have played by the rules.”
A policy since 2015
Currently, public colleges and universities in Missouri must charge undocumented students much higher non-resident, or international, rates. That's because of a budget policy that has been in place since 2015. But lawmakers must rewrite that language into the budget each new fiscal year.
Last year, a proposal approved in a conference committee would have reversed that budget language, allowing schools to offer in-state tuition but not scholarships to students like Franco.
The Republican-led House voted that down. Onder said his new bill this session would cut off debates like that in future years.
"I thought it was time to put this provision in our state law," Onder said.
Paul Wagner, a lobbyist for public four-year universities in Missouri, agreed the new bill would further cement the policy.
“While the budget bill functions as a law, it has an expiration date,” said Wagner. “By passing the provision as a regular bill, it would make it a permanent law that wouldn't have to be repassed every year.”
Franco is a senior engineering major at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She said paying the non-resident rate for tuition takes a serious financial toll on her and other undocumented students.
In-state students at UMKC pay roughly $8,800 in tuition annually for a full 15-hour course load. Non-resident students pay nearly three times that, about $24,000 per year.
Franco has been able to finance part of her education at UMKC through private scholarships but still says paying non-resident tuition has made life difficult.
“Freshman year I worked between 50 to 60 hours a week, so it was just from class to work, class to work," said Franco. “At one point I was working full time and doing that and it got the better of me. My grades suffered and I couldn't keep up.”
She said she's only now to the point, as a senior, where she can afford to take a bit more time off from work and participate in student activities and extracurricular groups.
“I became more involved on campus just because I missed that part of being a student," she said.
Scholarships also banned
Undocumented students in Missouri are also barred by law from receiving scholarships from public universities. The types of private scholarships Franco has earned can be rare and competitive.
The Kansas City-based Hispanic Development Fund provides private scholarships to metro students regardless of their immigration status. The organization’s director of educational development, John Kearney, said the new bill would be an additional barrier to students wanting to stay in Missouri for college.
“When you combine the two factors of state tuition with no scholarship opportunities, it effectively is blocking students from pursuing their college goals in the state of Missouri,” said Kearney.
Franco said this is the case for some of her friends, who crossed the state line to attend the University of Kansas.
“Financial aid-wise, they've said, we're open to (undocumented) students. Some scholarships are even offered to them,” said Franco. “It's been a big barrier being at UMKC because they're looking at you based on your status, not your financial needs.”
That could have a broader economic impact.
New American Economy, an immigration research and advocacy organization, released a study this month that finds Missouri risks losing out on $780,000 in annual state and local tax revenue and millions of dollars more in potential economic growth if undocumented students leave the state to attend college elsewhere.
But Onder, the bill's sponsor, says it's a matter of fairness.
“The point of immigration reform is to make sure we don't do anything to create a magnet to illegal immigration. And certainly offering very generous tuition subsidies can be such a magnet,” said Onder.
The bill was voted through the Senate Education Committee earlier this month. It now goes to the full Senate.
Jodi Fortino is a news intern at KCUR.