Maryland ‘Dream Act’ loophole increases costs for Montgomery high schoolers


Due to wording in the new Maryland Dream Act, Montgomery County students who are still in high school but want to take community college courses must pay nearly triple the rate their peers do. (Juana Arias /For The Washington Post)
January 27, 2013

The Maryland Dream Act, which voters approved in November to increase undocumented immigrants’ access to college, will significantly raise tuition for a group of students who attend Montgomery College and could prevent some of them from starting class when doors open Monday.

Because of wording in the new law — which grants in-county or in-state tuition discounts to undocumented immigrants — Montgomery County students who are still in high school but want to take community college courses must pay nearly triple the rate their peers do.

The legislation grants the tuition discounts to undocumented immigrants who, among other conditions, have graduated from a Maryland high school. Because students taking dual or concurrent enrollment courses through Montgomery College are still in high school, they don’t qualify for the reduced rate.

For undocumented high school students, tuition and fees at Montgomery College will go from $445.20 for a three-credit course at the in-county rate to the out-of-state rate of $1,172.40.

The legal loophole has the most impact on programs such as the College Institute that Montgomery College offers in partnership with the county’s public schools.

The College Institute allows students to take classes — such as introduction to business, criminal justice, and introduction to Flash — taught by Montgomery College faculty and for college credit on the campuses of Gaithersburg, Thomas S. Wootton, John F. Kennedy and Seneca Valley high schools.

“We want all of our students to access all of the programs here at Gaithersburg,” Principal Christine Handy-Collins said. “To have some students not be able to do that doesn’t feel good as a principal.”

High school students often take dual or concurrent enrollment courses through community colleges to get a head start on college. The credits earned are generally cheaper and can transfer to other colleges and universities.

The programs also allow students to try courses to make sure college will be the right fit for them, Handy-Collins said.

“They get a taste of higher education outside of high school,” she said.

The wording in the new law will have an impact on Montgomery County students that it will not have on students in other counties and at other colleges because Montgomery College was the only school in the state offering in-county tuition rates to undocumented students prior to the Dream Act’s passage. To follow the letter of the law, Montgomery College will have to charge higher rates to students who have not yet earned a high school diploma.

Elizabeth Homan, a spokeswoman for the college, said about 550 high school students are taking classes through Montgomery College. The college doesn’t have an estimate of how many of those students have declined to sign up for classes this semester because of the increased costs. But in December, the college sent letters to 76 high schoolers who were enrolled last fall but didn’t file complete information relating to their citizenship or immigrant status.

“We understand the value of this program, and we want to make sure to provide this opportunity to students,” Homan said. “But we also understand that we need to work under and follow the law.”

She said the school is willing to work with state legislators on a fix, but in the short term the school has offered a special payment plan for undocumented students who will now have to pay the out-of-state rate. Along with limited need-based grants for students, Montgomery College also created a Dreamers Scholars Fund to help students who don’t qualify for the Maryland Dream Act.

But for some students, a payment plan and grants aren’t enough.

One Montgomery high school student who took a sociology course at Montgomery College last semester said he had to drop plans to take business through the College Institute this spring. He came to the United States from Bolivia when he was 5.

“It’s not really one of those things I can take lightly,” said the senior, who asked that he not be named because of his immigration status. “Being low-income, it puts me in a strain for funds.”

Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Mongomery) said she is drafting legislation to help such students.

“We have this unique situation of high school students who are so far advanced in their studies,” she said. “Any high school student on track to graduate on time should be able to take classes provided by a community college and get the same in-county rate as their classmates.”

Kaiser likely will find opposition from those who fought the Dream Act last year, such as Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland. Botwin said he and others would be opposed to allowing high school students in-state tuition benefits if they are not in the country legally.

“Every little bit costs the Maryland taxpayers money,” he said. “This opens us up for another possible referendum.”

State Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s), who sponsored the Dream Act, says Montgomery College is misinterpreting the intent of the law and should extend the discounted tuition rate to undocumented high school students. Ramirez hopes there is an administrative fix to avoid further legislation.

“The intent [of the law] is that we want our students who live here and want to go to college and take these programs to get an education at the same cost as everyone else,” Ramirez said.

Laurie Augustino, a parent advocate in the Gaithersburg area, said she worries that avoiding a legislative solution would open Montgomery College up to a lawsuit, similar to one that challenged the school’s discounted tuition policies for undocumented students before the Dream Act passed. Augustino and others have been looking for ways to raise money that would help bridge the gap for students.

“We’re trying to keep these highly motivated students moving forward until there is a permanent plug for this hole,” Augustino said.

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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