Let all Maryland students dream

By Editorial
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 8:08 PM

THE DISPIRITING national debate over immigration has departed Washington for the time being and alighted mostly in state capitals. In many of them, Republicans have led a charge - mostly unsuccessful - to enact Arizona-style enforcement crackdowns based on the whimsical idea that undocumented immigrants can be rounded up by authorities or hounded into leaving. In a few states, though, including Maryland, lawmakers are addressing the reality that the undocumented are here to stay, and pushing for measures that will make them more productive members of society.

There are few more compelling examples of the wisdom of that approach than helping undocumented high school graduates go to college. Giving such students a leg up by granting them reduced, in-state tuition rates could give them a brighter, more affluent future, benefiting their communities, their states and the nation.

That's the idea behind the Maryland Dream Act, modeled on federal legislation that failed in Congress. The bill would make college affordable for thousands who graduate from state high schools, have parents or guardians who pay income taxes in Maryland, and have what it takes to attend college.

The legislation has been attacked by (mostly Republican) lawmakers who think that branding the students as illegal settles the debate. They raise the specter of swarms of undocumented immigrants receiving the Maryland tuition benefit, displacing native-born students on campus.

The reality is that undocumented students have been absorbed in the 10 other states that have granted them in-state tuition rates, which include New York, Texas and California. Many of the students are brought to this country as babies or small children by parents seeking work and a steady education - not thinking of higher education. Maryland education officials say they can handle the undocumented students, who would be required by the legislation to attend two years of open-enrollment community college before being eligible to apply to four-year institutions.

There would be upfront cost in allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, about a third of what out-of-state students pay. The state estimates the price at roughly $780,000 in 2014 and perhaps as much as $3.5 million by 2016. But consider even the short-term benefits to the state of producing hundreds of extra college graduates annually, as opposed to high school graduates or dropouts. The college graduates will earn more, pay more in taxes and contribute to economic activity that more than offsets the initial expense.

The Supreme Court has ruled that states must offer free education through high school for undocumented students. Why should they then segregate some college-quality students from others, simply because of a decision their parents may have made years earlier? That's not just unfair; it's also self-defeating.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company