Many kids would never dream of dropping out of high school for a simple reason. In effect, they've been inoculated against the idea.

Many kids would never dream of dropping out of high school for a simple reason. In effect, they've been inoculated against the idea.

From the time they were small, they've been told they're going to college. This aspiration propels them powerfully through their early years. Although it doesn't guarantee anything, or help them pay for anything, it does help keep them on track — through high school.

That's the way aspirations work, pulling you partway toward your destination. Yet that's what Oregonians overlook in the debate about providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. The key question isn't about their legal rights, although they have some. The key question is how best to vaccinate our children, and our economy, against failure.

Recently, a Boston think tank, Jobs for the Future, analyzed all 50 states and warned that Oregon's competitive standing will suffer unless we focus on broadening college prospects for Latino kids in particular.

Latinos are the fastest growing segment of Oregon's population. Nearly one in six students in our public schools is Latino. Although many are citizens, a growing number are undocumented.

However, Latinos make up nearly a quarter of Oregon's high school dropouts. Many factors are involved, but denying undocumented kids in-state tuition only pushes the brightest backward. Just ask college consultant Gerardo Ochoa.

When he meets with high school groups, he asks them to write their legal status on little slips of paper. On some occasions, half of his potentially eager-Beaver or -Duck audience is undocumented. He must then deliver future-crushing news: Even though they've lived here for years, worked hard and have parents who pay taxes, they cannot go to a four-year public university for in-state prices. The difference between $6,174 and $19,338 is the difference between go and no-go.

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the children of illegal immigrants cannot be denied a public education. The decision applies only to K-12, but the logic extends further. As the court put it, thwarting the educational potential of some children in our midst ultimately is self-defeating, imposing huge "costs to the Nation."

Requiring some of the poorest kids in our state to pay three times as much as other Oregonians do for college flat-lines their futures. And it also helps to deaden our own.