Immigration: The Search For Clarity

With comprehensive immigration reform a real possibility this year, we look at how our broken system affects Colorado—and how things could come into focus in the near future.

April 2013

Higher Ed

Leading the Charge

Why Metropolitan State University of Denver didn’t wait for permission to help Colorado students.

Stand in the middle of its campus and you’ll quickly see that Metropolitan State University of Denver is different from other Front Range universities. Although the energy that often permeates college campuses floats in the air, the typical carefree vibe is noticeably muted. That’s because MSU Denver serves a 23,500-strong student body that skews older, more diverse, more homegrown, and, on the whole, more educationally marginalized than those students at the state’s more traditional universities.
It was with that student body in mind that, in October 2011, MSU Denver president Dr. Stephen Jordan asked the university’s board of trustees an important question: What can we do if the state Legislature once again fails to pass the ASSET bill in 2012?

Jordan has served as MSU Denver’s president since 2005, but the institution’s interest in the passage of the ASSET bill—legislation that would make Colorado’s undocumented immigrant students eligible for resident tuition—predates even his tenure. “Metro State was the only higher education institution in the state to support the first iteration of the ASSET bill way back in 2002,” explains Dr. Luis Torres, deputy provost for academic and student affairs. “It was—and still is—our position that we are teachers, and we want to educate our community.”

In answer to Jordan’s question, the board responded that if the Legislature was unable to pass the ASSET bill—which became a reality in April 2012—MSU Denver itself would find a legal way to help what it considered to be the most educationally underserved population of students in Colorado. On June 7, 2012, less than two months after the ASSET bill died, MSU Denver’s board voted 7-1 to approve a tuition rate designed for undocumented immigrants living in Colorado. On the surface, the plan appeared to violate Colorado state law and immediately garnered unfriendly attention from state lawmakers. But Jordan and the board stood firm, explaining how, in their view, the rate did not breach laws that bar illegal immigrants from receiving state or federal subsidies for education.

According to Torres, the discounted tuition rate requires undocumented students, who were previously only allowed to attend the university as out-of-state students, to pay the in-state tuition rate and student fees, plus payments that cover the taxpayer subsidies a normal in-state student would receive. In short, the university’s position was that it simply couldn’t feel good about up-charging students who had graduated from Colorado high schools and whose families had paid at least some tax dollars into the state’s coffers. “Plus, Colorado had already invested about $80,000 each into some of these kids’ K–12 public educations,” Jordan says. “Why wouldn’t we want to make higher education affordable for them?”

Detractors say plans like MSU Denver’s—as well as similar ideas, like the ASSET bill—simply don’t make sense given the fact that if they do graduate, these undocumented immigrants cannot be legally employed in the United States. Other critics say giving noncitizens discounts and making an American citizen, a kid from, say, Oregon, pay out-of-state tuition is laughably unfair. Former congressman and Rocky Mountain Foundation founder Tom Tancredo has even looked into suing the university for its policy. “I wanted to file suit, but we needed a plaintiff,” Tancredo says. “Six or seven kids responded to an ad I’d placed in the paper—they all had a case—but when our attorneys told them what we wanted from them, they were afraid to go forward because of possible retaliation. And the thing is, I couldn’t tell them they weren’t right to be afraid.”

MSU Denver’s progressive—if controversial—tuition practices in 2012 were reinforced earlier this year when, as predicted, the Democrat-controlled state Legislature passed 2013’s version of the ASSET bill. “It was always our preference to have a legislative solution to this issue,” Jordan says. “We’d rather this not be limited to students at MSU Denver—but we couldn’t wait any longer.”
72 percent of respondents said they either completely disagree or somewhat disagree with MSU Denver’s tuition rate for illegal immigrants who graduated from a
Colorado high school.