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Opinion: If Georgia wants to increase college degrees, stop blocking children of immigrants

JoBeth Allen is a professor emeritus in the University of Georgia department of language and literacy education. She is co-director of U-Lead Athens, which supports equal access to higher education for students of immigrant families.

In this essay, Allen says Georgia could meet its goal to increase postsecondary graduates by enabling more children of immigrants to attend college and technical schools.

By JoBeth Allen

Welcome to Steve Wrigley, the new chancellor of the University System of Georgia. He identified Gov. Nathan Deal’s Complete College Georgia’s goal of increasing postsecondary education from 47 percent to 60 percent of the state’s workforce.

The Complete College Georgia Initiative specifically calls for more African-American, Hispanic, and other underrepresented groups to complete their degrees. One of the barriers is paying for college, a “far greater challenge for today’s students” than for previous generations, noted Dr. Wrigley.

I have great news for Dr. Wrigley, the Board of Regents and Gov. Deal. There are several thousand students who have attended K-12 schools in Georgia, who have resided here most of their lives, whose families pay taxes, and who are eager and ready to attend our universities, colleges, and technical institutions. They are un(der)documented immigrants, “under” documented because many of them do have documentation such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status, both federal programs deeming immigrants lawfully present in the U.S.

Why do so few of these students attend Georgia institutions of higher education?

Georgia State University, Wrigley’s alma mater, is now accepting un(der)documented students (they are still banned from the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech  and Georgia College & State University). That removes one barrier, but leaves another: cost.

In-state tuition and fees are $8,618 at GSU. Un(der)documented students pay $23,186 and are ineligible for any state or federal financial aid. So students who attended school together, played sports on the same teams, and who in some cases have citizen siblings find it financially prohibitive to attend college together in Georgia.

Other un(der)documented students are eager to go to technical schools to become electricians, nurses, or skilled mechanics. Institutions like Athens Technical College would seem an excellent choice. Tuition and fees for students living in Georgia are a very reasonable $3,328.

However, un(der)documented students are considered “international students.” Technical College System of Georgia policy states they “shall pay tuition at a rate four times the rate paid by Georgia residents.” So for un(der)documented students, most of whom have attended local elementary, middle, and high schools, the cost of one year at ATC is $13,312; a two-year associate’s degree would cost $26,624 (not counting books).

According to a 2015 report by the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, immigrants contribute substantially to Georgia’s economy. Immigrants made up 13 percent of the state’s workforce and generated a net business income of $2.9 billion from new immigrant business owners. Undocumented immigrants -- who many people believe pay no taxes -- contribute more than $350 million in state and local taxes annually.

The GBPI concluded that Georgia could increase annual state and local tax revenues by $10 million through a more skilled, higher earning workforce by allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. “More inclusive tuition policies will help build a diverse and skilled workforce. Business leaders value diversity among potential employees. Companies participating in the governor’s High-Demand Career Initiative identified the need to attract more women and minorities.” Further, declining enrollments threaten some Georgia institutions of higher education to the point that they are giving in-state tuition to students from adjacent states -- but not to un(der)documented Georgia residents.

These reasons for granting in-state tuition to un(der)documented immigrants make sense economically. For me, the reasons have human faces. They are students from local high schools who attend U-Lead Athens, a one-to-one college mentoring program for immigrants and children of immigrants. Our graduates have scholarships to Agnes Scott, Berea, Emory, Eastern Connecticut State, Illinois Institute of Technology, Smith College and Young Harris College. Statistics show few students who leave the state will return to live and work in Georgia. Those who stay in Georgia can often afford only three or four courses a year. They will not graduate for many years.

Dr. Wrigley, granting in-state tuition to un(der)documented immigrants will take you a long way toward reaching Complete College Georgia’s goal of increasing post-secondary education from 47 percent to 60 percent of the state’s workforce. Now, 27 other states do so. Let’s join them.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.