Regents committee discusses residency verification

Georgia’s public colleges already ask students to disclose their residency and citizenship status on admissions applications. But several regents and others questioned Tuesday what additional steps are needed to make sure undocumented students aren't charged in-state tuition.

The group discussed using the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program, a federal database that charges 50 cents for each basic background check.

The meeting was the second held by a committee established by the state Board of Regents to examine how the 35 colleges in the University System of Georgia check students' residency to make sure they're charged the correct tuition. The committee was formed after it was disclosed that Kennesaw State University erroneously charged an undocumented student in-state tuition. Illegal immigrants are allowed to attend Georgia's public colleges, but they must be charged out-of-state tuition, which is about three times as expensive.

The regents and Chancellor Erroll Davis ordered the colleges to review their files to make sure students are charged the correct rate. While the review is still ongoing, the assistant vice chancellor for legal affairs predicted less than 100 undocumented students are enrolled system-wide.

"If our goal is to identify undocumented students -- and nothing more -- SAVE would make sense," Regent Jim Jolly, the committee chairman, said after the meeting ended. "But the number of undocumented students looks to be very, very small. We have a much larger universe of students who might be abusing the system by being from across the [state] border, but trying to get in-state tuition. If our goal is to stop that, we're looking at something else."

The committee did not develop any recommendations, but scheduled its next meeting for Aug. 10.

Almost 97 percent of colleges ask applicants about their citizenship status or legal residence, according to a survey released last year by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. But less than 20 percent of colleges take additional steps to verify the status of its applicants. Of those who verify, only 5 percent use SAVE, the survey found.

In South Carolina -- the only state to bar illegal immigrants from its public colleges – universities use SAVE sparingly. College officials first ask for a driver’s license, passport, certified birth certificate or approved federal financial aid form – FAFSA – which requires social security numbers, said Karen Woodfaulk, director of student services for the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education.

Davis, Georgia's chancellor, said applicants could provide falsified documents and questioned how much time and money the system would be willing to spend to certify the documentation.

"We haven't seen data yet that says we have a massive problem," Davis said. "The situation at Kennesaw was human error. We are working to eliminate that."

Regent Larry Walker proposed including a statement on all applications saying that lying could result in a fine or jail time. Anyone who breaks the rule would be turned over to the authorities, he said.

While the committee focused on residency verification, there's a larger debate over whether illegal immigrants should even be admitted. Some lawmakers plan to introduce legislation barring these students -- a position supported by some gubernatorial candidates.

Davis said Georgia's policy follows federal law. Most states follow the approach used in Georgia, while 11 states allow illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition. All options are permitted under guidance provided by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.