Report: Tuition policy on immigrants costs Ga. $10 million a year

Barring some immigrant students from in-state tuition rates costs Georgia about $10 million in lost tax revenue each year, by decreasing access to higher education and better-paying jobs, according to a report out today from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

People with more education typically make more money and pay more in taxes, says the report from the left-leaning think tank that seeks to quantify the impact of Georgia’s higher education policies on certain immigrant students without legal status.

Georgia’s public University System bars those immigrants from attending institutions that haven’t enrolled all of their academically eligible students for the past two years. Those schools include some of the state’s most selective: the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State and Georgia College and State universities. At the state’s remaining public colleges, those immigrant students are required to pay out-of-state tuition rates, which can be thousands of dollars more than in-state rates.

The policies have led to a lawsuit against the state’s university system by a group of immigrants accepted into the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The program applies to immigrants who were illegally brought here as children, attended school here and haven’t been convicted of felonies.

The federal government says people granted this relief are legally present in the U.S. Georgia’s in-state tuition policy requires “lawful presence.” State attorneys have said the federal program doesn’t affect Georgia’s tuition policies.

The plaintiffs in the case argue that DACA recipients would be able to afford college, get better jobs and contribute more to the economy by paying the in-state rates. Critics have said the taxpayer-funded benefits should be for people with legal status in the country. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case next month.

The report’s findings are based on the assumption that Georgia will not lose significant revenue if it offers the cheaper in-state tuition to undocumented students because “nearly all of them are either priced out of college by the higher rate” or are barred altogether from attending some schools, said a spokesman for the institute. “You can also argue that Georgia could generate more revenue by offering qualified undocumented students in-state tuition because people who can’t afford to go to school now would pay some tuition instead of nothing.”

A spokesman for Georgia’s University System declined to comment on the report.

About 49,000 Georgians are eligible for temporary exemption from deportation under the DACA policy. It is unclear how many are affected by Georgia’s college policies. A University System survey found there were 501 “undocumented” students enrolled in its institutions in fall 2010.

In addition to the lost tax revenue, the state polices limit access to college and undermine its Complete College Georgia goals of producing 250,000 more graduates over the next decade to meet workforce needs, the report said. It said Georgia's economic development competitiveness is also hurt because other states offer more inclusive tuition policies. Twenty-seven states offer at least partial access to in-state tuition for undocumented and DACA-eligible students, according to the Center for American Progress. In Georgia, some private institutions, including Emory, have announced plans to offer financial aid to those students.

“It’s not surprising there is a net positive contribution from DACA recipients,” said Charles Kuck, attorney representing the 39 plaintiffs in the immigration case. “I am stunned that the Board of Regents (of the University System of Georgia) continues to cut off its nose to spite its face” by denying the cheaper in-state rates.

The report comes as Georgia’s University System looks to shore up enrollment at some of its institutions — particularly those in South Georgia — and has offered cheaper in-state rates to students from neighboring states.

Some political leaders, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and state Sen. Nan Orrock, have supported the plaintiffs' fight for cheaper tuition. Orrock, D-Atlanta, proposed legislation in the most recent legislative session that would have granted the DACA recipients the lower rates. The bill stalled in a senate committee.