Maryland’s fight over in-state tuition benefits for undocumented college students — illegal immigrants, as some prefer — turned out to be no fight at all but instead a walkover.
Tuesday’s vote on Question 4 showed a resounding 58 percent majority choosing to uphold the 2011 state law known as the Dream Act. The law sets a path for undocumented students to obtain in-state tuition rates if they attended a Maryland high school for three years, meet various other conditions and go first to community college.
Now, Maryland has become the first state to approve such a law through legislation and a popular vote. About 12 states around the country have similar laws and policies. Texas, under Gov. Rick Perry (R), became the first in 2001.
Two college leaders had a deep stake in the outcome: University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh and Montgomery College President DeRionne P. Pollard.
For Loh, the issue of education for immigrants is personal. He was born in China, moved to Peru as a small child, grew up speaking Spanish as his native language and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He voted for the law in Question 4.
On the meaning of the outcome, Loh said: "The American dream is alive. It can be adapted to every generation and to new circumstances. This will give all these young people living in the shadows hope."
He added: "I myself am an immigrant. Most of us are hyphenated Americans, except for those of us who were here before the Pilgrims landed. Even the Pilgrims did not have documents when they arrived in this country."
The in-state tuition rate at U-Md. is $7,175 a year. The out-of-state rate is $25,554. I reported last month that many undocumented students in the state view passage of the law as essential to their hopes of getting a four-year degree.
But, Loh warned, the Maryland Dream Act does not ensure that large numbers of such students will be able to take advantage of in-state subsidy. The reason: Requirements in the law that students or their parents file state tax returns and meet several other conditions.
Loh said a back-of-the-envelope guesstimate is that 20 students a year or so would qualify for benefits at U-Md. That’s insignificant at a university of 37,000. Also, undocumented students generally don’t qualify for the usual sort of financial aid, an issue Loh hopes to start addressing.
As leader of Montgomery College, Pollard presides over a school that has had the most liberal policy on tuition discounts in the state. The school grants in-county rates to all Montgomery County high school graduates who obtained a diploma within the past three years. Period. That means that undocumented students view the 27,000-student college as a haven. Elsewhere in the state, they have been forced to pay out-of-state rates to go to community college.
Critics alleged in a lawsuit that Montgomery College tuition policy is illegal, but they have so far failed in court to block the policy. Their lawsuit is pending in the Court of Appeals of Maryland, the state’s highest court.
The result on Question 4, Pollard said, is "validating our long-standing practice" on tuition. For students who qualify under the Dream Act, she said, it means "They can live without fear. Now they’ll know there is a direct path for them" to get an associate’s degree and then a bachelor’s degree. Pollard, like Loh, was an outspoken supporter of the Dream Act.
I also spoke Tuesday with state Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington), a leading opponent of the law. He said he was unfazed by the margin of voter support for it, saying that a referendum was a better vehicle to settle the issue than a statehouse deal cut in Annapolis.
"This is good," Parrott said. "Maryland people are going to decide this issue after a thorough debate."
That they have done.