California exempts many undocumented students from paying non-resident tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities. But gaps in the law mean that some undocumented students and visa holders still don’t get exemptions — even if they’ve lived in the state for more than a decade. Two bills pending in the state Legislature would make it easier to qualify.
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Being a California resident can save you a lot of money at the University of California — about $30,000 in tuition per year.
At California State University, a non-resident student pays nearly $10,000 more than a California resident with the same 12-unit class load; at a community college, it can be up to about $7,500.
For more than 20 years, California has exempted many undocumented students from having to pay non-resident tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities. But gaps in the law mean that some undocumented students and visa holders still don’t qualify for in-state prices — even if they’ve lived in the state for more than a decade.
Now, state lawmakers are debating two bills that would make it easier for even more students to become eligible for in-state tuition. UC and Cal State could lose millions in revenue if one or both of the bills pass. But supporters say the bills would reduce equity gaps and increase access to an affordable higher education — especially critical, they say, when the state is enjoying a record budget surplus and students are recovering from a global pandemic.
Take the case of Sakshi Savale, a senior at San Jose State University. She didn’t have many options to choose from when she applied to college. Savale came to California in 2009, two years after her family immigrated to the U.S. from India.
California law allows undocumented immigrants and some others without legal California residency to be exempted from paying out-of-state tuition if they attended three years of a California high school, community college or adult school and received a diploma. Students eligible for the exemption can also qualify for the Cal Grant, the state’s main form of financial aid.
But Savale wasn’t undocumented. She was a dependent visa holder, which meant her stay in the U.S. was dependent on her father, a business consultant, who has a work-related visa. While many colleges considered her an international student, San Jose State allowed her to pay in-state tuition, saving her family tens of thousands of dollars. That changed this school year, however, after Savale turned 21 and had to switch to a student visa. Now the university says she has a backlog of about $1,500 in fees from the fall that she must pay before she can receive her diploma.
“Now I’m about to graduate and this might hold me back from getting my diploma, and it’s been extremely stressful,” said Savale, who hopes to stay at San Jose State for graduate school.
Senate Bill 1160, authored by Los Angeles Democrat María Elena Durazo, would help students like Savale by allowing students whose parents have certain long-term U.S. visas to qualify for in-state tuition if they meet the law’s other requirements.
At an April hearing of the Senate Education Committee hearing, members said a pathway should be provided for students who have been in the state for a long time, but some posed concerns about wealthy foreigners taking advantage of the bill. Savale and other visa holders organizing with a group called Improve the Dream nevertheless say they should be included.
“Some visa holders – they’ve generally had better benefits and access to resources, both in terms of income, education, status,” said Adrián Trinidad, a higher education researcher and the assistant director of community college partnerships at the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center. Still, he said, it makes sense to grant in-state tuition to students who have been a part of California for years and will continue to contribute to the state’s economy.
Another bill, Senate Bill 1141, would reduce from three to two the number of years undocumented students or others without legal California residency have to attend high school or postgraduate classes in the state in order to qualify for in-state tuition. Authored by State Sen. Monique Limón, a Santa Barbara Democrat, it’s co-sponsored by the California Community Colleges and Immigrants Rising, which advocates for undocumented students.
The Senate Appropriations Committee will decide the fate of both bills Thursday, along with hundreds of others on the committee’s suspense file.
Cal State and University of California officials have not expressed a position on the bills. Nonresident tuition makes up about 13% of UC’s budget, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.
SB 1141 would likely increase costs for the state, because it would allow the newly eligible students to apply for the Cal Grant. Sen. Brian Dahle, a Lassen County Republican, posed a concern at a March Education Committee hearing that there’s a finite number of Cal Grants available. “There’s not enough money to go around,” he said.
The state has enough extra money in its budget this year, though, to offset much of the immediate cost, Trinidad said. “The surplus has been so strong, I think it’s more of a matter of whether folks think (college affordability for these students) is an issue,” he said.
Lowering the attendance requirement to two years could inspire more prospective students to attend the state’s community colleges, which are facing declining enrollment, said David O’Brien, vice chancellor for government relations for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.
“We believe it closes a really critical gap in access, particularly for undocumented students in higher education in California who were locked out,” O’Brien said.
The bill would also remove a provision requiring eligible community college students to enroll in non-credit courses to meet the attendance requirement, which some students said causes them to waste time in classes that don’t help them progress toward a degree.
Limón said the bill could immediately help up to 900 students, and supporters of the bill believe the long-term impact would be much greater. Undocumented students don’t qualify for federal student aid, making access to state aid and lower tuition critical.
“There’s thousands of students that would be eligible,” said Nancy Jodaitis, director of higher education at Immigrants Rising.
Esther Ugwuezumba, an undocumented El Camino College student whose family is from Nigeria, applied for in-state tuition last winter but wasn’t approved, she said. As a high school graduate who attended school in California for two years, she would qualify under the bill.
Her mother foots the bill for her tuition by working two jobs, as a caregiver and a certified nursing assistant at a hospital. Ugwuezumba, who’s majoring in nursing, also works as a caregiver to help with the cost. The family will soon also have to pay more fees when Ugwuezumba’s brother starts attending a Cal State University this summer.
If Ugwuezumba’s application for in-state tuition gets approved, she said, “it’s going to reduce a lot of pressure on my mom.”
Shaikh is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.