While President Donald Trump is considering scrapping protections for undocumented students, Tennessee lawmakers advanced a bill on Wednesday that would make it easier for them to go to college.
A proposal to give undocumented immigrant students in-state tuition passed the Senate Education Committee with a 7-2 vote and little debate.
The move was fairly unusual, given Tennessee lawmakers’ typical hardline stance on undocumented immigrants — the state outlawed “sanctuary cities” in 2009 — and the president’s focus on the issue. But the bill’s Republican sponsor, Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, has steered clear of national politics and focused instead on how the proposal would continue the state’s push to get more of its young people into college.
“We know that if more Tennesseans have a college degree, the whole state is better off,” he said. “By allowing more Tennesseans to enroll in college, we can fill crucial labor shortages and expand the overall tax base.”
Sixteen states, and four other state university systems, offered in-state tuition to undocumented students in 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six states explicitly bar those students from receiving it.
Advocates say the policy can make a big difference for families. Out-of-state tuition to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is $30,914, compared to $12,274 in-state. And for community colleges, the difference is even greater: out-of-state tuition at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis costs more than $15,000, while other Tennessee high school graduates can attend for free through Tennessee Promise.
Undocumented students can’t access federal Pell grants to pay for college, nor do they qualify for the state’s free community college program, which relies on federal grants.
Making sure students who have lived in Tennessee most of their lives can graduate from college means a better return on taxpayers’ investment, Gardenhire said.
“We invest in these students throughout their K-12 education,” he said. “But then they get to college, and they have to pay three times the in-state rate.”
The bill still has several hurdles to overcome before becoming law, since it hasn’t been heard yet in the House and Tennessee’s legislative session is nearing its end. But its sponsor in the House, Rep. Mark White, a Republican from Memphis, said he is optimistic about the bill’s chances there as well. Gov. Bill Haslam has said in the past that allowing all Tennessee students in-state tuition “has merit.”
On Wednesday, dozens of immigrant students attended the hearing to watch the vote. Many remembered a similar bill that died in the House two years ago, just one vote short.
Many were heartened by the vote, according to Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director of Tennessee Immigrants and Refugee Rights Coalition.
“We are optimistic that subsequent committees will vote to support Tuition Opportunity and that undocumented students in the class of 2017 will be able to graduate with greater opportunity to enroll in college this fall,” she said in a statement.