Commentary

Undocumented students deserve to go to college. We need to provide the path | Opinion

Nineteen states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates. Pa. should join them and make an education dream come true

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By Chris Horne

I was baffled when Jorge, one of my students, told me that he willingly broke child labor laws throughout high school. From 9th grade to 12th grade, he worked 20-, 30-, and 40-hour weeks in restaurants.

By a conservative estimate, he spent a combined 75 hours on work and school alone, not counting the commute, homework, sleep, or social life. Why would a teenager do this?

Jorge, whose name I’ve changed to protect his identity, is undocumented and knew that he would not qualify for financial aid to attend college. Instead, he did everything he could to save enough money to pay for college entirely on his own.

Jorge is not alone: the Migration Policy Institute estimates that there are approximately 98,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school in the United States each year. Pennsylvania is home to 163,689 undocumented residents, including about 50,000 in Philadelphia alone.

None of these young people, not even Dreamers protected by the DACA program, can receive federal student aid for college. In most states, including Pennsylvania, they are banned from state aid as well. This prohibition is short-sighted and wrong. Such policies actively harm both people and the economy and they must change immediately.

All people, regardless of their ability to show a government-issued ID, should have access to a quality education that leads to a life-sustaining, stable career. This is not a new idea: In 1986,  President Ronald Reagan advocated for undocumented people to be granted the full rights of citizenship. We have already taken a step in this direction by paying for children to attend K-12 schools without proving their citizenship. We should not end this access to education at high school for undocumented students while their classmates continue on to college.

Education beyond high school is increasingly required for a stable career, and excluding hard-working, capable people from those opportunities hurts not just them but the economy, too.

Consider all of the additional spending that a more stable, higher-paying career allows for. Undocumented people already contribute $11.64 billion in state and local taxes per year, and that would only increase with higher wages. In the current economic landscape, no state can afford to lose that revenue.

This is particularly true for Pennsylvania, which saw the 6th largest decline in population of any state between 2020 and 2021.

The Commonwealth is also aging rapidly and the pandemic has left about 400,000 jobs unfilled across many sectors. At the same time, we have thousands of undocumented students graduating from high school each year who want to be stronger contributors to the workforce but who are banned from pursuing the education that could help them achieve their goals. The Commonwealth’s prohibition on higher education funding for undocumented students forces people to move elsewhere and further erodes our economic competitiveness with other states.

The movement to remedy this is gaining momentum, with 19 states allowing in-state tuition for undocumented students and seven states providing state aid.

Pennsylvania lawmakers must choose to be on the right side of history by passing legislation (SB440) sponsored by Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, which would allow undocumented students to receive in-state tuition and to qualify for state aid.

Our lawmakers should also create a grant that models the Pell grant, a type of federal funding for low-income students that currently excludes people without documentation.

Jorge has saved enough to pay for two years of community college and one year at a public four-year school, with the plan of earning enough for the fourth year along the way.

He should be celebrated for his remarkable industriousness, and at the same time, he should never have been put in this position and forgo so many opportunities during his high school career. Let’s help Jorge and others like him make their dreams come true. Let’s support Pennsylvania’s undocumented students on their path to college.

Chris Horne the director of College Counseling and Alumni Support for Girard College, where he serves students from low-income households in Philadelphia. He is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Pennsylvania Policy Fellow.

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