Where Hope Starts
An MSU Denver tuition rate for undocumented students heralded passage of state legislation to make college more affordable and restored students’ dreams of college, careers and better lives.
By Ivan Moreno
Publish Date: April 22, 2013
|MSU Denver student Victor Galvan says the Pledge of Allegiance at the Colorado
State Capitol, where he followed the progress of legislation that would impact
immigrants, including Senate Bill 33, the ASSET Bill. The bill was signed into
law in a ceremony at the University on April 29, 2013. Photo: Matt Slaby
When it was time for Victor Galvan to pick up his cap and gown for his high school graduation, his mother insisted on buying his class ring.
“I didn’t know it was because she felt bad because we couldn’t afford to go to college, we couldn’t afford to continue,” says Galvan, now 22. “I say ‘we’ because my mom and our family had really supported me, and we struggled together to get to this point.”
As an undocumented immigrant, he hasn’t qualified for in-state college tuition, even though he’s lived in Colorado since he was 8 months old. Colorado’s out-of-state rates — which can be more than three-times higher than tuition for residents — were unaffordable for his family. So his mother told him something unexpected.
“We got into the car to go home [and] she just looked at me and said, ‘It’s OK if you don’t go to college. You’ve gone far enough. You’ve made us so proud,’” Galvan remembers.
“I didn’t find it fair,” he says. “But I told her, ‘This is not enough. This is not where it ends.’”
A BOLD DECISION
The challenge of paying college tuition for students like Galvan is what Metropolitan State University of Denver sought to address when its Board of Trustees voted 7-1 last June to set a new tuition rate for students who live in Colorado but cannot prove lawful presence. Two months earlier, a similar proposal failed to pass the Colorado Legislature.
MSU Denver’s decision was bold even for a university that was the first higher-education institution in Colorado to support bills to allow undocumented students to pay tuition rates similar to legal state residents. At the time of the board’s action, there were 12 states that allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, but there were no individual colleges or universities that had instituted the lower rates on their own, according to immigration and academic experts.
The rate MSU adopted was higher than in-state tuition because it included a $650 fee for the use of campus buildings and it didn’t include a state subsidy known as the College Opportunity Fund. Still, the new rate significantly lowered tuition for undocumented students. It meant they could pay about $3,578 per semester, compared to the out-of-state rate of just under $8,000. In-state tuition is $2,152 per semester.
In fall 2012 — the first semester the new, lower non-resident tuition category was available — 237 undocumented MSU Denver students benefited from the rate, according to University data. In spring 2013, 264 undocumented students were paying the new rate.
They are students who otherwise would’ve had difficulty affording college, or who have been forced to slowly chip away at advancing their education by taking classes off and on, as Galvan has been doing since he graduated from Denver’s North High School in 2009.
Galvan, a sophomore journalism major, says MSU Denver’s creation of a new tuition category came at a perfect time in his life because he was becoming frustrated by lawmakers’ inability to pass legislation.
“You start wondering whether you’re ever going to get that chance,” he says. “And Metro really created that for me — that hope that things can change.”
To qualify for the new tuition category, known as the Colorado High School/GED Non-resident Tuition Rate, undocumented students must have graduated from a Colorado high school after at least three years of attendance, and they must show they’re in the process of obtaining legal status.
“Each student’s life and ability to contribute to local communities is enriched by the opportunity to complete his or her educational goals,” says Tanya Broder, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center.
Broder, who researches programs to lower tuition for undocumented students nationwide, says that while it’s difficult to track institutional policies, there have been recent examples of officials creating new rates outside of the legislative process. They were not individual colleges, however, and she doesn’t know of any other instances where a college or university has done something similar to MSU Denver.
Sonia Gutierrez, 22, came to Denver with her family from the Mexican state of Chihuahua when she was 2. Unlike many undocumented students, she’s been able to attend MSU Denver because a private donor paid her tuition. But the donor could only pay for two years, and she couldn’t afford to finish without that help.
Then MSU Denver lowered tuition for undocumented students.
“Perfect timing because I had just lost my private donor and I thought I was going to have to pay out-of-state tuition,” says Gutierrez, a speech communications major who is graduating with honors in May.
Gutierrez says college affordability is especially challenging for immigrants.
“I don’t come from a wealthy family or a family with a lot of money that can put me through college. My parents work and make barely enough for my family,” Gutierrez says.
“This opportunity [to attend college] has changed my life,” she adds. “I’m so proud to be a student of Metro.”
A NATIONAL MOVEMENT
Since MSU Denver adopted the new tuition rate, the momentum to lower college costs for undocumented immigrants has continued nationwide.
In February 2013, the University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents unanimously approved in-state tuition for students regardless of immigration status if they met certain criteria.
And in March, Colorado lawmakers approved Senate Bill 33, the ASSET Bill, allowing undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition.
The most recent failed legislative attempts called for a slightly higher rate, similar to what MSU Denver adopted. But with Democrats in control of both legislative chambers in 2013, lawmakers were able to take a more aggressive approach with ASSET. Still, the measure received a handful of votes from Republicans who had traditionally opposed the idea.
Two weeks later, Oregon lawmakers approved a similar bill. The measures in Colorado and Oregon have been signed into law.
“These proposals are gaining bipartisan support this year,” Broder says, noting that more than a dozen states are considering bills this year that would provide access to in-state tuition, scholarships, or state financial aid regardless of status.
Although some lawmakers, immigrant rights groups, and academics applauded MSU Denver’s action, it’s been a contentious issue. Colorado Attorney General John Suthers issued an opinion last summer questioning the University’s power to set the new tuition category, and some Republican lawmakers also criticized the move.
Amid the criticism, the University stood by its decision. MSU Denver officials insisted that what they did complied with federal and state laws because taxpayers didn’t subsidize the special tuition rate.
And, University leaders countered, addressing tuition affordability for undocumented students was not only within the institution’s legal right, but it also was the right thing to do.
T he non-resident rate answered an imperative stemming from the institution’s roots. Born out of an urban renewal project that displaced many Latinos in the area, MSU Denver has made it a goal to be accessible to students of color, President Stephen Jordan says. He notes that more than 33 percent of students enrolled at MSU Denver are students of color, including nearly 20 percent who are Latino.
“We have this mantra that we are an institution of opportunity,” Jordan told the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee during a hearing last June. “We have historically served the largest population of low-income, first-generation and historically under-represented populations, and we’re very proud of that.”
There are economic considerations as well, Jordan told the committee. A well-educated workforce benefits society and the economy through greater tax revenues, higher productivity, increased workforce flexibility, enhanced civic engagement and improved quality of life. By extending an affordable but unsubsidized tuition rate to students, “They would be able to contribute to our economy in a more meaningful way.”
Gutierrez is making that contribution already. “I got my Social Security number — those nine numbers that held me back for so long,” she says. “And I now have a work visa that I can use my degree in.”
University officials did extensive research before proceeding with the board’s action and looked at court cases in California and Kansas, where the states were sued for approving in-state tuition for undocumented students. Courts had ruled in the states’ favor.
The University was prepared for a lawsuit, Jordan says. “We felt we’d done a lot of work going into it and we felt confident in our legal position.”
Ultimately, there were no lawsuits. And Jordan says he was heartened by the number of new students who enrolled under the special tuition rate, given the short timeframe between the board’s decision and sign-up dates.
A SHIFTING DEBATE
Jordan says he believes t h at proceeding with the new tuition rate for undocumented students provided a stimulus to “the broader debate about a tuition benefit for undocumented students.”
In November 2012 NEWSED Community Development Corp. presented a Civil Rights Award to MSU Denver and President Jordan, citing a host of initiatives that welcome and support students of color, including the “very courageous” decision to establish the non-resident tuition rate for undocumented students.
Among the lawmakers who praised MSU Denver’s decision to move forward without legislative approval was Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston, co-sponsor of the ASSET Bill during the previous three legislative sessions. He says the University “changed the tenor of the debate.”
“They became the group to break trail. They were the first one into the deep snow, and they walked through and showed that it was possible and the rest of us could follow,” he says. “And they took some arrows for doing it.”
Johnston says MSU Denver’s decision showed that higher-education institutions were ready to act outside of the legislative process. When Suthers issued his opinion, he was responding to a question from the Colorado Community College System, which had supported Johnston’s bill and wanted to know whether it was possible to do what MSU Denver did.
“[MSU Denver] showed that it was possible to do a version of it, and the sky wouldn’t fall and everything would continue and universities would be viable,” Johnston says.
In states where undocumented students aren’t allowed to pay in-state tuition, there are behind-the-scenes efforts to help them pay for college through private donors or private scholarships, says Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
“What Metropolitan State University [of Denver] did of course was something that was more visible,” he says. “It’s reflective of a broader national debate that has hit a crescendo this year.”
Now that undocumented students have access to in-state tuition, MSU Denver plans to phase out its non-resident rate. Most immigrant students are expected to qualify for the in-state rate, but those who don’t will be able to use the non-resident rate until they graduate, Jordan says.
The new law means students like Galvan have more college choices in the state. But Galvan says MSU Denver remains one of his top options.
“It’s the school that’s always been open to me,” he says. “One great thing about Metro is it doesn’t discriminate. Metro has really been available to all students, and that’s why it’s such an obvious option for so many people. It’s really inclusive.”