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Democrats Revive Plan to Give Undocumented Students Tuition Aid at NJ Colleges

Undocumented residents already have the right to pay in-state tuition, but few can afford to do so, effectively shutting them out of a college education

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A compromise forged between Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic legislative leaders several years ago let undocumented immigrant students living in New Jersey qualify for in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities. But many haven’t been able to take advantage of the lower rates since they continue to be locked out of state-administered financial-aid programs.

A bill that’s been introduced in the state Legislature attempts to fix the college-affordability issue for undocumented students by allowing them to tap into financial aid and other support from New Jersey’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority.

The measure has enthusiastic support from advocates for the undocumented students but faces an uncertain outlook thanks to Christie, who has blocked prior efforts to let undocumented students qualify for financial aid. After taking a hard turn to the right as he’s focused more on national GOP politics in recent years, there are no indications the governor has had any change of heart. Still, as New Jersey’s immigrant population continues to grow, and with Christie’s time in office coming to an end in 19 months, lawmakers may find more success by playing the long game.

Christie, a Republican, worked with Democratic lawmakers in late 2013, shortly after winning a second term, on the legislation that gave undocumented immigrant students the opportunity to pay in-state tuition. The change effectively cut tuition rates in half at in-state public colleges and universities for undocumented students who’ve lived in New Jersey for at least the last three years.

The legislation allowing tuition equity also sought to give the undocumented students access to New Jersey’s Tuition Aid Grants and other state-administered financial aid. Christie, however, rejected that element of the bill in a conditional veto, and the Democratic sponsors accepted the change as a compromise to ensure the in-state tuition rates would go into effect. Now, lawmakers are trying again to open up financial-aid programs to undocumented students. Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) is sponsoring a bill that would allow students meeting the same three-year residency requirement set in the in-state tuition bill to qualify for state Higher Education Student Assistance Authority programs. The latest state budget boosted funding for TAG assistance by $14 million, and it would only consume roughly half of that amount to extend financial aid to undocumented students, Schaer said.

“We are trying with all of our might here in New Jersey to make the best use of the limited resources that are at our disposal,” Schaer said during a conference call with reporters yesterday.

The call was organized by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank based in Trenton. The group also issued a new report yesterday showing that, as of the fall of 2015, fewer than 600 students were taking advantage of lower in-state tuition rates. The report suggested more undocumented students could attend college in New Jersey if they also had access to financial aid programs.

“The numbers are clear and the numbers are obvious,” Schaer said.

The average undocumented family in New Jersey earns $34,500 annually, according to NJPP’s report, but the average tuition and fees for four-year public colleges average more than $13,000. Going without any financial aid means many undocumented students are forced to work several jobs while attending college, said Erika Nava, an NJPP policy analyst who coauthored the report.

“That increases their chances of not finishing their degree on time or of dropping out,” Nava said.

She also pointed to legislation passed in California in 2011 that unlocked financial-aid programs for undocumented students. Since then, there’s been a big spike in enrollment among undocumented students at public colleges and universities in California, she said.

Gordon MacInnes, NJPP’s president, said there are also sound financial-policy reasons for New Jersey residents to support opening up the financial-aid programs to undocumented students. Most come through New Jersey’s K-12 public-school system, meaning taxpayers have already heavily invested in their education up to this point. Locking them out of financial aid programs at the four-year college level “makes no sense,” MacInnes said. But whether the change sought by Schaer, Nava, and others can be enacted before Christie leaves office in January 2018 remains to be seen.

When Christie signed the law allowing in-state tuition rates for undocumented students in 2013, he was still considering running for president as a pragmatic and moderate Republican who could broaden his party’s appeal to nontraditional voting blocks. But after his public-approval ratings plummeted in the wake of the 2014 Bridgegate scandal, Christie decided to run instead as a more hardline candidate with much firmer positions on immigration issues, including calling for people to be tracked like a FedEx package. He also earlier this year endorsed the candidacy of presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, who has accused immigrants from Mexico of being rapists and murderers and has also been backing a ban on Muslims.

Christie is attending the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week, and press secretary Brian Murray declined comment on the financial-aid measure yesterday, citing office policy to not weigh in on bills still pending in the Legislature.

Still, Schaer and other lawmakers may be looking ahead to the post-Christie era. A full 22 percent of New Jersey residents are foreign born, and the state is home to an estimated 509,000 undocumented residents. Those figures are sure to be on the minds of lawmakers next year when all 120 seats in the Legislature are up for grabs. And Republicans in the Assembly may already be looking for a way to compromise.

Schaer said he was open to discussions with GOP lawmakers on language that would require students to prove that their parents have paid taxes over the prior three years before allowing them to qualify for financial aid. He didn’t promise to make any changes to the bill.

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