Equality vs. Equity for Undocumented Students in NJ

Every child should be given the opportunity to reach their God-given potential.  That’s a moral requirement…   We need to get to work…on things like making sure there’s tuition equality for everybody…”   N.J. Governor Chris Christie —

This week, New Jersey lawmakers will send a bill to Governor Chris Christie’s desk that provides undocumented students who have grown up and gone to high school here with access to resident tuition rates and state-level financial aid.  This comes after Christie’s pre-election pitch that tuition equality was much needed and that legislation would “get done in the lame duck session.”  Yet, with the elections now over, Christie has backed off, saying that the current bill goes too far and that he will veto it.  Among the more relevant sticking points is the financial aid component, even though aid appears to have been part of the discussion for some time.[1]   As is often the case with matters of fairness, Christie, New Jersey lawmakers, and immigrant activists have engaged in a struggle over equality, versus equity.  The former guarantees the same tuition price for everyone, overlooking the fact that not everyone has the same or even ample resources to pay for it.  The latter is more concerned with fairness and justice; it acknowledges that some groups face disproportionate barriers, even when treated the same, and that the aid is a necessary leveler to ensure that the opportunity is real.

Our take is that financial aid is necessary for many students to achieve equity, and that, by supporting it, Christie has the chance to both upstage Washington and implement the more beneficial policy – for the state and for economically poorer immigrant communities, including Latinos, who gave him a record-breaking 51% of it’s vote in the Nov. 6 election and will continue to make up a larger portion of the national electorate over the next several cycles.[2]   Arguments against aid ignore the contributions of undocumented immigrants, the economic and social benefits to be had, and the reality that financial aid has become an inextricable component of the college experience for most students – the fix that makes opportunity real… .

. . .

State-level initiatives are important at a time when immigration reform in Washington remains elusive.   U.S. Senate Democrats initiated bipartisan legislation that includes a path to citizenship for qualifying individuals, but the bill contains draconian compromises in the form of massive spending to expand border patrol, build prison detention centers, and add 700 miles of border walls, all of which must be completed before citizenship is granted.  Despite these concessions, most House Republicans have chosen to ignore the issue, foregoing any additional debate.   Still further, the White House continues to send mixed messages with contradictory deportation practices.  In this context, governors are in a position to take the lead and make some proactive moves, especially in higher education.  Indeed, 6 states already provide undocumented students with in-state tuition, with 3 of them providing in-state aid.[3]

Providing financial aid is an economically fair and wise strategy. Undocumented immigrants, including students, shop, pay taxes and use less social services than the media tends to imply.[4]  Business experts see undocumented immigrants as the fastest growing segment of the consumer population, which is important for economic growth.[5]  Estimates by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) are that undocumented immigrants paid almost 500 million in state and local taxes in 2010.[6]  Using estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, ITEP further estimates that these numbers will increase to 558 million once granted citizenship – before considering the impact that earning a college degree will have on their income.

There are many economic and community-level benefits to improving college access for the undocumented and other people who live in poorer areas, and are at greater risk for downward mobility.  When people graduate from college, they are more likely to become life-long, middle to upper middle class, tax payers.[7]   In contrast, when people living in areas of highly concentrated poverty do not reach the education level necessary to obtain a good job, they become vulnerable to illegal and off-the-books activities that are more dangerous and costly to the public in terms of social services, policing, the judicial system, and imprisonment.  Access to education is simply a wise, long-term investment for all of us.

But for this investment to work, the financial aid component of the New Jersey legislation is critical, especially for Latinos and other groups who tend to be economically poorer.[8]   Currently, tuition and other college-related costs are rising to levels that require more citizens to obtain more financial assistance than ever.[9]   New Jersey residents already endure higher-than-average tuition rates[10] and a cost-of-living that is among the highest in the U.S.[11]  Meanwhile, non-citizen residents of New Jersey earn just 60% of the general population’s median income.[12]   In this context, many undocumented students will have a greater need for assistance to pay for school, even at in-state tuition rates… .

. . .

Governor Christie’s willingness to stand up and acknowledge the calls of constituents and lawmakers for educational opportunity was a bold move in the context of an immigration leadership void.  In his speech to the Latino Alliance of New Jersey, he spoke passionately and affirmed his commitment to fairness, putting himself in line with his audience and the Latino voters that cast their ballots in his favor on November 6.  But the desire to create opportunity, to do what is just, is now caught up in an all too common snag  best characterized by the difference between two words that we often hear as the same, but ultimately are not:  Tuition equality will make tuition the same for all on paper, but not in practice because not everyone has the resources to pay for it.  This is precisely why we have a financial aid system in the first place!  Tuition equity includes access to financial assistance for those who need it, to make opportunity concrete; and it does so by means that are economically fair and beneficial to many.

We encourage Governor Christie to take advantage of this moment to implement good policy and make opportunity real.   And if some folks are not yet comfortable with it, perhaps the Governor will join us in spreading the word on how it works.  That, we think, would be maverick-like leadership that is sorely needed.


Sofia De Pierola is a Senior Biology Major, Sociology Minor and Program Assistant for the Latin American & Latino Studies Program at Saint Peter’s University 

Alex Trillo, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Urban Studies, and Director of the Latin American & Latino Studies Program at Saint Peter’s University


[1] In January 2013, Senators Ruiz, Pou and Cunningham sponsored the first New Jersey DREAM Act, S2479.  The New Jersey DREAM Act Coalition has been lobbying for tuition equity, with aid, for about just as long.

[2] Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project: Inside the 2012 Latino Electorate by Mark Hugo Lopez and Anna Gonzalez-Barrera. June 2013.

[3] National Conference of State Legislatures, Undocumented Student Tuition: State Action  July 2013.

[4] Immigration Policy Center: The Economic Impact of Immigration.  2007.

[5] Businessweek Magazine: Embracing Illegals.  July 2005.

[6] Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy: Undocumented Immigrants’ State and Local Tax Contributions.  July 2013.

[8] Center for Immigration Studies: Immigrants in the United States: A Profile of America’s Foreign Born: Poverty, Welfare and the Uninsured.  2011.

[9] Washington Post: The Tuition Is Too Damn High: Introduction by Dylan Matthews. August 26, 2013.

[10] Trends in Higher Education: Tuition and Fees by Sector and State.  2013.

[11] CNBC’s America’s Top States for Business: Cost of Living Column.  2013.

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