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Tuition equity bill has backers, doubters

Afeeling of "overwhelming relief and joy" came to Jazmin Roque as she watched on the Internet as the Oregon Senate passed a tuition equity measure Thursday that would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at universities and community colleges.

"Things can only get better from here on for students and young people in Oregon," said Roque, the director of multicultural affairs for Southern Oregon University's student government.

Also the co-chair of the statewide Oregon Students of Color, Roque has spent the past three years lobbying legislators and talking with students on campus in an effort to build grass-roots support for tuition equity. She said most students are supportive.

Of those who disagree, many are out of state and question why an undocumented student should get in-state tuition and they could not, Roque said.

She deflates that question by saying that out-of-staters can attend in their home state or obtain residency at some point in Oregon.

Undocumented students don't have those options, she said.

Furthermore, undocumented students cannot obtain federal or state financial aid to go to school, she said.

But some state legislators agree with the dissenting students. State Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said the bill unfairly gives benefits to students who are not citizens.

"If you are a U.S. citizen from another state you have to pay approximately $114,000 for out-of-state tuition — but Oregon colleges will accept students here illegally at approximately $32,000 per year," Esquivel wrote in an opinion piece published in the Mail Tribune. "Basically, I see this legislation as a direct discrimination against U.S. citizens."

Di Saunders, spokesperson for the Oregon University Systems, said undocumented students' inability to obtain financial aid will be a prominent reason schools in the system won't be flooded with applications when the law is enacted.

Fourteen other states have enacted a tuition equity law. In those, the number of students who used the program have ranged from "a handful" to a few hundred, according to an OUS economic impact statement.

But "we do see a positive fiscal impact" coming from this law, Saunders said.

The economic impact statement gives two projections—a low of 41-student increase with an estimated net revenue gain of $334,820 and a high of 163-student increase with an estimated revenue gain of $1.6 million.

Both the chancellor's office of the Oregon University System and the State Board of Higher Education supported the law.

Officials in those offices say it is needed so that Oregon can reach its 40-40-20 objective, an initiative with goals of 40 percent of the population having earned a bachelor's degree, 40 percent an associate's degree or certificate and 20 percent a high school diploma.

"To get there, we need to do a better job with under-served students," she said.

She noted the increasing number of Latinos in the state represents a portion of the future workforce. If they are not educated, then the state will suffer because its workforce cannot compete, she said.

"We need those students," Saunders said. "They are our future. We know the Oregon economy depends on it."

Currently, Roque said she knows of no undocumented students attending SOU. She said the international tuition rate is too much for most to pay.

But Roque, who is also employed as a student worker in the admissions office, said undocumented high school students throughout the Rogue Valley have been in contact with that office.

"There are definitely students that are going to benefit from this and are going to apply," she said.

Roque said the undocumented students who would take part in tuition equity are "Oregonians, essentially."

"They've grown up here," she said, noting that most attended elementary and high school in the state.

She said not allowing them to continue at a university at an in-state rate is a "disinvestment" after taxpayer money paid for their elementary and high school education.

Vince Tweddell is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at vince.tweddell@gmail.com.