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Undocumented college students hit with higher Missouri tuition

Millennium Student Center at UMSL
File: Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Students who have lived in Missouri for nearly all of their lives and graduated from Missouri schools are no longer considered Missourians when it comes to the tuition they must pay at public colleges and universities.

The students affected fall under a policy known as DACA, for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It covers those who came into the United States as children, with parents who were undocumented, and have been in the country since June 15, 2012. Other conditions also apply, including school attendance and lack of a criminal record.

At issue in the new change is language in the preamble to House Bill 3 , the higher education appropriations bill passed this year by the Missouri legislature.

Though the bill itself doesn’t say anything about what students are entitled to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities, the preamble says:

“…no funds shall be expended at public institutions of higher education that offer a tuition rate to any student with an unlawful immigration status in the United States that is less than the tuition rate charged to international students, and further provided that no scholarship funds shall be expended on behalf of students with an unlawful immigration status in the United States.”

Vanessa Crawford Aragón, executive director of Missouri Immigrant & Refugee Advocates, or MIRA, estimated that about 1,300 DACA students live in the state. But, she said, it’s hard to know precisely how many students in the state will be affected, because schools keep their own records and have their own tuition policies.

That situation makes it hard for students and their families to determine how to deal with what she called “an end run around the legislative process.”

“Schools are trying to figure out where they stand,” she said, “which is problematic for the schools and the students.

Under some interpretations, including those by Gov. Jay Nixon and the American Civil Liberties Union, the language is not enforceable because it is not part of the law itself.

Sarah Rossi of the ACLU called the prohibition a “backdoor attempt to create policy. It’s not a statute. It’s not a statutory change. It was put into the preamble in an effort not to have to make a statutory change as required by the constitution.”

She said no decision has been made on how the ACLU or affected schools might proceed.

“We haven’t yet decided to file suit,” Rossi said. “At this point, we’re working the advocacy route and trying to get the governor and the universities themselves to take a position.”

University of Missouri sends regrets

But some of the schools within the University of Missouri system have begun to notify returning students  and new students who fall under the definition of the preamble language that they cannot count on paying in-state tuition – a change that for students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis would mean paying about $25,000 instead of $10,000 for the school year that begins next month.

A letter dated June 30 from Alan Byrd, dean of enrollment services at UMSL, began:

Alan Byrd, dean of enrollment services at UMSL
Credit UMSL
Alan Byrd, dean of enrollment services at UMSL

“I regret to inform you that you residency status has changed at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.”

The letter told affected students that their admission status is not affected, but their in-state rate would no longer be valid.

“Please accept my sincere apology for any inconvenience this legislation may have caused you and your family,” Byrd’s letter concluded. “We truly value you as a member of our campus community and hope this will not prevent you from continuing your education at UMSL.”

In an interview, Byrd said that hope won’t be fulfilled for several students who had planned to go to UMSL but have now decided to enroll instead at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Illinois does not have the same policy as Missouri, and SIUE allows students on the Missouri side of the St. Louis area to pay in-state tuition rates

“Right now,” he said, “we are working diligently to be able to bring those students back. Of course, we can’t offer them any public funds, but we’re allowed to use private funds to keep them at the current rate, so they’ll be able to afford to finish their degrees here at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.”

But, he added, such private funds are limited.

“We do not have enough to cover everyone,” Byrd said, “so right now it’s a priority that we’re trying to secure funds to be able to take care of all returning students.”

At the university’s Columbia campus, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin said only two students are affected by the change in the law, and Mizzou is working to find “alternative ways to fund their education.”

He noted that while the campus has thousands of foreign students attending class, they have proper visas.

UM-Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin
Credit UM-Columbia
UM-Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin

“The people primarily affected by this are really not people who have come to this country specifically to go to higher education,” Loftin said in an interview. “They were brought here probably when they were two years old or younger, by their parents, who have been in the country illegally.

“They are the ones who are still here, have gone through school systems here, from the time they were in kindergarten or pre-kindergarten through high school, and they come to universities like Mizzou to pursue higher education.”

He said that U.S.-born students often do not try to earn graduate degrees in areas like engineering and the physical sciences, so foreign students fill that gap. Attracting international students is not a matter of seeking higher tuition than that paid by Missouri residents but one of achieving a diverse student body, Loftin said.

“We want this university to reflect the world,” he said. “Our graduates are going to be working in a global environment, a global economy. To the extent that they have relationships here at this campus, it prepares them much better to a part of the global community when they leave the university.”

Asked whether foreign students might be filling slots that could be taken by Missouri residents, Loftin replied:
“We have never denied admission to a qualified Missouri student in place of a person from outside of Missouri.”

Other actions affecting college costs

The situation involving DACA students and in-state tuition follows Nixon’s veto last week of legislation that would have taken away eligibility for A+ scholarships from undocumented students. The bill would have limited such scholarships to students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

Nixon called the bill, Senate Bill 224 , “a harsh measure imposed unfairly on children who have done nothing wrong. Quite the contrary, they have done much to be admired, in their studies, for their schools and on behalf of their communities.”

In a speech in Kansas City on Saturday, he added:

“At a time when we are working to make higher education in Missouri more accessible and affordable, this bill would have the exact opposite effect by taking away the scholarships these students have earned through their hard work and achievement.

“These students have worked hard, played by the rules and given back to their communities. Rather than punishing them, we should be encouraging students who are willing to work hard both in and out of the classroom to achieve their goals and strengthen their communities.”

On Wednesday, Nixon announced a further effort to help students afford higher education. He said the maximum award amount for Access Missouri scholarships – designated for students from low-income families -- will increase to $850 from $660 for students attending participating 2-year institutions and to $1,850 from $1,500 for those attending participating 4-year institutions.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.