Viewpoint: Moving the needle on supporting undocumented students


Last summer, Massachusetts took a significant step toward inclusivity and equal opportunity in higher education through the passage of the state’s tuition equity law. This long-awaited legislation allows all of the Commonwealth’s students, regardless of their immigration status, to access in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, and state financial aid at both public and private institutions. The culmination of nearly two decades of unwavering advocacy, this groundbreaking law is a testament to the power of collaboration between advocates, higher education leaders and state officials who worked tirelessly to make it a reality.

With U.S. District Judge Hanen’s latest ruling that declared DACA unlawful and congressional deadlock over immigration reform, collaboration at the local and state level is now more important than ever. The passage of Massachusetts’ tuition equity law allows us to recognize the pivotal role that colleges and universities can play in advancing policy change locally, as well as implementing legislation to ensure the safety and support of DACA, undocumented, refugee, international, and other immigrant-origin students and staff.

Helpful strategies

Nearly half the states in America now have some kind of tuition equity law, and as others look to join this vital, growing movement, here are a few important strategies to consider:

  • Build a big coalition tent. Community colleges, public and private universities all have an interest in tuition equity, and so do business leaders, K-12 schools, social service agencies and non-profits serving immigrants and refugees, and many other organizations.  The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition and the Massachusetts Business Roundtable were just two of the very different organizations finding common cause in our big coalition tent.
  • The plight of young, undocumented immigrant students is important to explain, but it is not always sufficient by itself to make a case for bipartisan support of tuition equity.  Understanding and describing the state’s workforce needs, higher education enrollment challenges and other economic drivers can help build an even more compelling case.  During our campaign for tuition equity in Massachusetts, I partnered with a state senator to publicly outline all the reasons we needed to pass the law, and as we grew our coalition, these became our most important talking points.
  • Play to your strengths (and don’t worry about who gets the credit). Committed college presidents, elected officials and respected business leaders can all help get attention and influence, while local, community organizations are able to drive grassroots participation and national education and advocacy groups like the Presidents’ Alliance on Immigration and Higher Education can provide expert policy and communications guidance. No one can get it done alone — it takes all of us working together.

The economic argument

These local collaborations are crucial ways to protect our students and staff in the face of federal inaction and the potential impacts of state policies such as Massachusetts’ tuition equity law can’t be understated. In Massachusetts, as predicted in a report by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC), the state will be nearly 200,000 college-educated adults short of the workforce we will need by 2030. This is compounded with declining state-wide enrollment rates. As Massachusetts grapples with a growing skilled-worker shortage, immigrants, including young, undocumented college students, are pivotal to sustaining our communities and economy.

A recent report released by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration partnered with the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) and the American Immigration Council (AIC) found that immigrant-origin students now account for 31% of all domestic students in U.S. higher education. When looking closer at Massachusetts, half a million students enrolled in the state’s colleges and universities today are of immigrant origin and among them, more than 11,000 are undocumented. Further contributing to an under-utilized talent pool, a thousand undocumented students graduate from high school annually with little to no pathways to access higher education.

According to the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation, in-state tuition policies will allow undocumented and DACA students to contribute an estimated $2.6 to $3.5 million into the state’s community colleges and public universities. Furthermore, in 2022, international students and other immigrant-origin students contributed over $3 billion into Massachusetts’ economy. When considering how DACA, undocumented, refugee, international and other immigrant-origin students can contribute to our communities and local economies, it’s pretty clear that pushing for tuition equity policies nationwide is a common-sense move.

Maintaining momentum

What’s more, this legislative win is not an isolated event. Massachusetts has become the 24th and most recent state to enact tuition-equity laws across the country.

As new political and economic realities require us to reconsider how our institutions can identify and embrace a broader talent pool, it’s now evident that campus leaders need to work with key local players beyond higher education. The good news is that we don’t have to navigate these collaborations alone. The Higher Ed Immigration Portal, for instance, offers comprehensive guides and resources. Furthermore, the successful passage of tuition equity across the country, including Massachusetts, provides a blueprint for how our colleges and universities can unite to champion inclusivity, diversity, and opportunity for all.

By working hand in hand with advocates, business leaders and state officials, campus leaders can empower dreamer students to study, work and participate more fully in their states but also enhance educational opportunities for every member of our diverse communities.

About the Author

Lane A. Glenn
Lane A. Glenn is president of Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts and a member of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.
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