Editorial: Back to the tuition debate

The MetroWest Daily News

Gov. Deval Patrick has revived the idea of letting the children of illegal immigrants qualify for in-state tuition at state colleges, reopening a debate marked by divisiveness, misinformation and demagoguery.

Two years ago, the state Legislature rejected a proposal to allow graduates of Massachusetts high schools who had lived in the state at least three years to qualify for in-state tuition. Patrick said last week he was investigating whether it would be legal for the state Board of Higher Education to change its policy without action by the Legislature.

The change in policy would only affect a few hundred students, but the issue has great symbolic value. To immigrants and their supporters, the current policy is fundamentally unfair to students doing their best to get ahead and play by the rules. To opponents, in-state tuition is symbolic of a lax attitude toward illegal immigration. Emotions cloud judgment, and rational discourse is lost in slogans and misinformation.

Consider, for instance, the response of Rep. Kevin Murphy, D-Lowell: "Why should illegal immigrants get benefits that legal citizens aren't?," Murphy told the Boston Herald.

Well, for starters, in-state tuition is already available to "legal citizens," at least those who have lived in Massachusetts at least a year, so extending that tuition rate to those who have lived here at least three years wouldn't give them an advantage over their classmates. Perhaps the "legal citizens" Murphy is referring to are from outside Massachusetts, but there's ample justification for giving Massachusetts residents a lower tuition rate at state colleges - which you would think Murphy, who is chair of the House Higher Education Committee, would understand.

Affordable public higher education isn't a "right," as much as a privilege that should be fairly extended to all who qualify. It is also an economic development strategy. Massachusetts needs skilled workers, and research has shown that Bay State residents educated at community colleges, state colleges and UMass are far more likely to stay here and contribute to the economy.

A 2006 analysis by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation put the emotional issue in a more practical light. Allowing the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition would help fill unused classroom seats, mostly at community colleges, MTF concluded. That would result in a revenue increase to the higher education system of as much as $2.7 million by 2009. The MTF study has been often cited, but never, as far as we know, discredited.

Extending this benefit wouldn't cost taxpayers, and it wouldn't take anything away from "legal" citizens. It would provide opportunities for young people who don't deserve to have their ambitions squelched by the kind of politics more concerned with sending messages than solving problems.