The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Opening the door of opportunity for ‘dreamers’

Demonstrators in support of "dreamers" gather in front of the Supreme Court in November 2019. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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While Congress remains paralyzed on the fate of “dreamers” — young undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children — many states have acted to open doors of opportunity for them. Often they’ve done so on a bipartisan basis, reflecting broad public support for dreamers, which cuts across the nation’s tribalized politics.

In at least 20 states, lawmakers or other officials have granted in-state tuition at public colleges and universities to high school graduates in the state, regardless of their immigration status. That shift, which began 20 years ago and has accelerated over the past decade, has made an enormous difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people raised in this country and American in every sense but the legal one.

For many students, in-state tuition is the key for access to higher education. In the current academic year, the average sticker price for tuition and fees for in-state undergraduates at public colleges and universities is $10,740, according to the College Board. For those who don’t qualify, it is $27,560.

Most dreamers come from families of modest means, which means the in-state rate can be the difference between a future full of promise and one lived on the margins of American prosperity.

The states’ expansion of tuition equity for undocumented immigrants is a somewhat overlooked good news story, and a hopeful counterpoint to the policy dysfunction that has been Washington’s default for years. According to recent estimates based on the 2019 American Community Survey, roughly 2 percent of all students in institutions of higher education, or more than 427,000 of those enrolled, are undocumented immigrants. Many of them are beneficiaries of in-state tuition, and some would never have graduated from high school if not for the incentive of relatively more affordable higher education.

The benefits of states’ tuition equity policies are enormous — not only in reducing high school dropout rates but also in elevating employment prospects, incomes and tax payments of dreamers who graduate from college. That’s not just a helping hand for them; it’s a boon to the nation.

Granted, most Republican-dominated states — Texas being an important exception — have not given undocumented migrants a break on tuition, meaning they have essentially barred the door. Those states remain in the majority nationally. However, more than 80 percent of such students live in and attend high school in states that have shifted to tuition equity. Perhaps it’s easier to foreclose opportunities to people one is unlikely ever to have encountered face to face.

Americans of all political stripes, including a majority of Republicans, favor extending those opportunities to dreamers, understanding that it is self-defeating to deny them the chance of a better life. In a 2020 Pew Research Center poll, three-quarters of American adults said they support granting legal status to dreamers, a move that would render moot any lingering debate over tuition equity. The country has moved, state by state, in the direction of opening the doors to a better future for young undocumented migrants. It still has a way to go.