FOR THE BETTER part of a decade, Montgomery College has given tuition breaks to illegal immigrants who are recent graduates of Montgomery County high schools — treating them, in effect, just like their native-born classmates. But it was only last fall that the college codified the practice and gave it a name: Policy 45003.

This makes the community college, which enrolls some 27,000 degree-seeking students, an outlier among this region’s public colleges and, in our view, a beacon of good sense and opportunity.

The policy has also made the college a target of conservatives who enjoy bashing illegal immigrants. They do so in the fanciful hope that by denying opportunities to U.S.-educated youngsters who lack documents, those youngsters will somehow just disappear or, better yet, self-deport back to countries of which they often have no memory. They won’t.

The vast majority of public colleges in the mid-Atlantic area treat undocumented immigrants as out-of-state students, requiring them to pay tuition that can be as much as triple the discounted rate for residents. In practice, the higher tuitions are prohibitive; they slam the door on even the brightest high school graduates who were brought to the United States illegally, in most cases through no fault of their own.

Montgomery College’s more enlightened premise is that it is folly for the state to invest in students who grow up in Montgomery County and finish high school, only to see their ambition squelched upon graduation. Like it or not, these young people are here for the long haul. What’s the sense in barring them from fulfilling their potential and in punishing them for the actions of their parents?

Conservative organizations argue that taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize illegal immigrants who, in Montgomery College’s case, are receiving discounts denied to native-born students who live outside the county. One such organization, Judicial Watch, filed suit challenging the policy. A Montgomery Circuit Court judge dismissed the lawsuit last month; the group plans to appeal.

In its lawsuit, Judicial Watch suggested that the policy has cost taxpayers about $2 million annually in “lost” tuition revenue. In fact, the college does not collect data on the immigration status of students, so no one knows what the cost has been. The college estimates there may be several hundred undocumented students enrolled each year.

In any event, no American-born students have been displaced by undocumented ones, since the college has open admissions. And Maryland officials say that no state funding goes to supporting the undocumented students since the college excludes them from aid calculations.

With unemployment high and the economy sluggish, groups opposing illegal immigrants launched a successful petition drive to give Maryland voters a chance next year to repeal the state’s just-enacted Dream Act. The law would extend tuition discounts to all undocumented students at state colleges — provided they finish high school in the state, come from families that pay taxes and have clean records. Even in some of the 10 states where that policy is already law, including Texas, there are moves afoot to undo it.

At some point, though, it will dawn on the critics that America is hurt, not helped, by limiting the potential of bright youngsters who will live their lives in this country. To its credit, Montgomery College is ahead of the curve.