Pulling plug on in-state tuition will cost $1.5M

State would lose out if undocumented students drop out.
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A bill that would repeal in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants may be dead before it ever gets a public debate this year.

HB428 has been tagged with a $1.5 million cost estimate -- the amount of tuition that would be lost if the 400 identified undocumented students were to drop out because they couldn't afford to pay the higher out-of-state or international tuition.

"It would take unanimous support from leadership to get a bill like that through," said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, who is Senate chairman of the Legislature's main budget committee. "With all the other cuts and reductions we're doing, it would have to have a very high priority."

But HB428 is still awaiting a hearing in the Legislature, and even its sponsor realizes it would take a major push to get it through the House and Senate before the session ends March 11.

"It could make it all the way through, but it may not be funded and go nowhere," said the sponsor, Rep. Richard Greenwood, R-Roy. "We have a little under two weeks. It's going to have to grow some pretty long legs."

His bill is the sixth attempt to repeal the 2002 law, and this is the first year the specter of enrollment caps at schools such as Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College -- which also have the highest numbers of undocumented students -- has bolstered lawmakers' arguments to repeal the law.

But the prospect of enrollment caps is nothing but "rumor and speculation" to activists such as Matt Bradley, a University of Utah instructor and member of the Magpie Collective, a group formed in opposition to the conservative Eagle Forum.

"Greenwood says enrollment caps are going to happen, but from my point of view, and from schools I've talked to, there aren't any actual plans for enrollment caps," Bradley said. "If in-state tuition is revoked, the majority of those students will not be able to attend school. They simply can't afford it."

The fiscal note is different each time the bill is presented because "the tone of the bill also affects the tone of the fiscal notes," according to Spencer Pratt, the legislative fiscal analyst who has calculated the bill's costs for the past few years.

The majority of students would drop out of school if they had to pay out-of-state tuition, and there's no guarantee an additional 400 students would take their places, he said.

"We're looking at system-wide soft caps," he said. "You can only offer so many sections, and when they fill up, you're out of luck."

The $1.5 million loss to institutions of higher education is not something that Greenwood and bill advocates say will hinder its ability to pass.

Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, calls the fiscal note "ludicrous."

"I look at it as a politically motivated action deliberately designed to kill the bill," he said. "I can't see why else it would be there."

But he is trying to look at it as positively as he can, saying that if schools will lose $1.5 million, the state is actually saving about $3 million, because it subsidizes two-thirds of Utahns' higher-education costs.

"If you've got a waiting list or are threatening enrollment caps," he said, "have the unemployed Americans who are coming back to school fill in for those 400 positions."


Tuition for undocumented students

HB428 would repeal a 2002 law that allows children of undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at Utah universities and colleges if they graduated from a high school in the state. The bill remains in the House Rules Committee and has yet to be assigned to a committee for a public hearing.