When an anonymous University of Wisconsin junior was a senior in high school, she was an honor student who volunteered and played sports. Like so many other bright students in the state, she set her sights on attending UW, where she was accepted.
But as enrollment and her eventual attendance neared, the student realized her dream was slipping away. Because of her status as an undocumented immigrant, she realized she could not afford the out-of-state tuition she was required to pay at the time. Federal aid and most other scholarships were also out.
She went a separate path.
Then, things changed. As a part of a controversial provision in the 2009 state budget that allowed undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition as long as they graduated from a Wisconsin high school and have lived in the state for at least three years, she became the first undocumented student eligible to pay in-state tuition. She again set her sights on UW.
“UW-Madison was far beyond my reach for many years,” the student said in an email to The Badger Herald. “Even though money remains as the biggest barrier to continuing my education, in-state tuition has made it possible for me to attend at all.”
Under Gov. Scott Walker’s equally controversial budget proposal for the next biennium, undocumented students will no longer be eligible for the tuition reduction.
What is the cost?
This UW junior is one of less than two dozen students in the UW System who applied for the provision since 2009, according to UW System spokesperson David Giroux.
Immigrant advocates lobbied for the provision for years, resulting in heated debates in the UW Board of Regents. Former Gov. Jim Doyle approved its inclusion in the budget in 2009. Wisconsin became the 11th state to enact such a law.
“The passage of that requirement did not cost us a great deal of money and revoking it will not save us a great deal of money either,” Giroux said, adding UW did not request the policy revert to its pre-2009 state.
While the System holds the cost is relatively low, Walker spokesperson Cullen Werwie said the governor’s goals are fiscal, not ideological.
“It was about prioritizing spending while balancing Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion budget deficit,” Werwie said in an email. “At a time when the state is facing difficult fiscal challenges, we can’t afford to provide taxpayer benefits to undocumented individuals.”
“These are Wisconsin families”
For the UW junior, paying out-of-state tuition at UW was never an option, so she enrolled in a liberal arts transfer program at a technical college and went to school part-time.
Even once in-state tuition became available to her and she was able to transfer to UW four years later, she was only able to take a few classes at first because she was still not eligible for financial aid.
Now, she is a full-time student after finding other scholarships and pays for the rest of tuition herself. She plans to attend graduate school after UW.
For many families, even paying a reduced in-state tuition is impossible because it is an out-of-pocket expense, according to Christine Ortiz-Nuemann, executive director of Voices de la Frontera.
“These are Wisconsin families. They contribute to our tax base. They are not receiving anything they haven’t paid for or contributed to,” Neumann-Ortiz said.
Most undocumented families pay taxes, though they are not eligible for most benefits such as social security or pensions, Neumann-Ortiz said.
They also do not have the same opportunities to work and pay their way through school as other students do, said Kent Craig, executive director of Centro Hispano in Madison.
There is also a large disparity in high school graduation and achievement rates between Latino youth and other populations in Wisconsin high schools. Providing in-state tuition opportunities was one way to make college an incentive and a possibility for Latino students and begin to close that gap, Craig said.
A broken system
Many undocumented students in Wisconsin may also be in the process of becoming legal citizens, but due to backlogs, have been waiting for years.
“In the meantime, states have tried to respond to the needs of working families who are caught in this broken immigration system,” Neumann-Ortiz said.
As a result of a 1996 change in immigration rules, many citizenship applicants can no longer legally live and work in the U.S. while waiting for paperwork to be processed.
For communities struggling with citizenship issues, resident tuition was also a symbol of hope for not only students, but the families and communities that supported them, the anonymous UW junior said.
“They could go back to thinking that college is not possible for them and stop working hard for a better future,” the UW junior said. “Youth across the state fought for 10 years to pass in-state tuition and will defend it because of what it means to communities across the state.”
Caught in limbo
It is still unclear how quickly the tuition element will be implemented and if and when students like the anonymous UW junior currently enrolled under the in-state tuition remission will lose the exemption.
The Joint Finance Committee will begin holding public hearings on the budget proposal Thursday, with three more hearings scheduled later this month. Once the public hearings are completed, the JFC could decide to change provisions within the bill before ultimately sending the bill to the Legislature. The process is supposed to be finished by July 1, but often extends well past the deadline.
Advocates maintain this is not the end of the line for undocumented students who want to go to college in Wisconsin.
“Immigrant students, both undocumented and documented, have been overcoming barriers for a long time and I’m sure they’re going to keep striving for that dream to get a college education,” Craig said.
The UW junior feels circumstances beyond her control have held her back when it comes to attending college. While she worked as hard as her peers in high school to get into UW, her immigration status was a barrier other students did not have to contend with
But her situation has also given her perspective.
“I consider myself lucky because very few undocumented students are able to attend college,” she said. “Overall my college experience has been one of hardship and struggle, however this has made me appreciate it and want it even more.”