J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County will soon be renamed Justice High, honoring an American value denied to some students there by three of Virginia’s most distinguished public colleges and universities.
Twelfth-grader Quetzali Cruz, a native-born American citizen, applied to the College of William & Mary, ranked 32nd among national universities by U.S. News & World Report. Her transcript verified that she lived in Virginia, but that wasn’t good enough for the nation’s second-oldest university.
Cruz, hoping to major in music, has a 4.03 grade-point average and is working toward an International Baccalaureate diploma. A William & Mary official, Kisha Thompson, emailed Cruz on Feb. 1 asking for her parents’ visa status. Cruz replied Feb. 5 that she was a citizen and listed several other official documents she could provide. Not good enough for in-state tuition, Thompson said Feb. 13.
This has been happening to students all over the state. Eric Wolf Welch, a veteran social studies teacher who runs the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) college preparation program at Cruz’s high school, said three universities — Old Dominion, Christopher Newport and William & Mary — have demanded parents’ immigration papers from his students.
Federal and state courts have ruled “a U.S. citizen cannot be denied a benefit from a state because of their parents’ background, at least not an adult, and these students will be adults in college,” Welch said. He said colleges in other states, and most public universities in Virginia, accept drivers’ licenses, housing lease documents, tax forms or paycheck stubs as proof of residence.
“I know the colleges defend their policy because they claim that their financial aid rules, both at the state and federal level, automatically assume any student under 24 is financially dependent on their parents; therefore, the parent must prove they live in Virginia for the student to receive in-state tuition,” Welch said.
Representatives from William & Mary, Old Dominion and Christopher Newport confirmed the practice. They said their policies are in keeping with Virginia law.
Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax) pointed out in a Falls Church News-Press column that three states (Florida, New Jersey and South Carolina) and the District have been sued for treating U.S. citizen students this way. “In every case, a court or state commission ruled that such policies are unconstitutional,” Kory said. “Virginia should not wait to be sued but should lead by example.”
The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia says individual colleges have the right to determine which documents are required, although council officials told me they are working on the problem.
The AVID program Welch directs at his school includes two days a week of the most useful tutoring I have ever seen in American high schools. The students all present questions that stumped them on recent homework. The other students in their group and the tutor pepper them with questions to push them toward the answer.
“I am passionate about helping students reach their goal of going to college,” Welch said. “What really bothers me about this issue is we have students who have gone through our public schools, have done the right thing, worked hard to get good grades in rigorous classes . . . and then when they are ready to go to college, they’re denied that opportunity based on their parents’ background.”
Welch has put students in touch with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Some who have indicated plans for a legal challenge have found colleges suddenly reversing themselves, sometimes requiring no proof of residency at all. When Welch told William & Mary to expect a lawsuit by Cruz, the university told the student her high school transcript would be enough.
It sounds almost as if the universities are pulling this stunt as a test of intelligence and character. Do they want only students on their campuses tough and savvy enough to get a lawyer when something goes wrong? It is hard to believe a university even older than our nation would play that game, but I wonder.