ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The University of Michigan today decided to let immigrants living in the country illegally pay lower, in-state tuition, a victory for activists who said one of the nation's most prestigious schools is financially out of a reach for high school graduates living in the state without legal permission.
The move applies to the flagship Ann Arbor campus and satellites in Flint and Dearborn and joins Michigan with other top public colleges like the University of Texas and the University of California, where students qualify for in-state tuition if they went to state high schools regardless of citizenship status. The Board of Regents voted 6-2 along party lines to make the change after university students waged a year-plus campaign for "tuition equality" that featured silent protests and other public demonstrations.
Democrats supported the plan, while Republicans voted against it. The proposal also allows members of the military to receive in-state tuition, regardless of where they live.
"These students want nothing more than what my family wanted and what every other student wants, which is to launch their lives from this university. These are students who have in most instances spent virtually all of their lives in Michigan," said regent Mark Bernstein.
With a national immigration overhaul elusive, a small but growing number of states — 16 — have allowed in-state tuition rates for the immigrants since 2001, including 14 that passed laws explicitly authorizing the moves, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two OK'd it through governing board decisions.
Three states bar the students from qualifying for in-state tuition, and two others prohibit them from enrolling altogether in public universities.
Though Michigan hasn't enacted legislation either allowing or prohibiting in-state tuition rates for people here illegally, a few of its smaller 15 public universities have been able to allow them to pay in-state tuition. That's because they're independent under the state's constitution. Advocates are hoping a high-profile step by Michigan's most prominent school — and one of the top public universities in the U.S. — will set the stage for others to follow.
"It's going to put the University of Michigan on the map as a college that really puts into action what we say we believe," said Laura Sanders, a faculty member.
It costs $13,100 for in-state tuition and fees at the university, compared to nearly $40,400 for out-of-state tuition and fees. The Ann Arbor campus has more than 42,000 students.
One who hopes to attend the university is Javier Contreras, of Ann Arbor, who moved with his family to Michigan from Mexico when he was 4. The 18-year-old said he got into the school this year but would have had to pay out-of-state tuition because of his immigration status, so he'll first attend a local community college on scholarship to study computer science.
"I'm going to try to finish my last two years at U of M now that I can afford it," an elated Contreras said while celebrating with dozens of supporters who attended the meeting.
His father, Jose, choked back tears while telling the board his family's story, saying they came to escape poverty.
"He was a little boy when I bring him over to the United States," he said. "I know you members of the University of Michigan (are) same as me, you also have kids. I know you wish the best for them. ... I wish you can help us out and let these kids do their best because I know they have what it takes to become professionals."
Regent Andrea Fischer Newman said she voted no because the matter is best left to the federal government. Critics in other states have said a 1996 federal law prohibits states from giving students who are living here illegally in-state tuition unless they charge everyone that rate.
"I'm concerned about whether this is appropriate under federal law and believe this type of national issue should be resolved at the federal level, although I am supportive of the expansion of in-state tuition for veterans who have served our nation," she said.
While happy with the regents' vote, activists criticized a provision requiring university applicants living in the U.S. without permission to have attended a Michigan middle school or junior high for two years along with a Michigan high school for at least three years. They said the middle school requirement is unnecessary, not used elsewhere and will hurt students who arrived in the U.S. later.
The new guidelines will take effect in January. University officials expect a small number of the state's estimated 29,000 young immigrants here unlawfully to be affected by the changes, which also help other students with longstanding ties to the state but who leave temporarily after high school.