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Publicly funded universities in Missouri haven’t been able to offer in-state tuition to students living in the country illegally since 2015, and a state lawmaker wants to make sure that doesn’t change.

Each year since 2015, a provision in the state budget has barred publicly funded universities in the state from offering in-state tuition to students living in the country illegally.

State Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, proposed a bill that would write that provision into state law, preempting any compromise attempts like one that briefly stalled the budget late last session. The bill had a hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday afternoon.

In 2019, the Missouri House of Representatives stopped a budget bill that would have allowed public universities to offer in-state tuition to students living in the country illegally, but not offer them scholarships.

Lawmakers restored the budget language before approving the budget, and Onder wants to make sure it stays there.

A 2009 law already bars publicly funded colleges and universities from offering those students financial aid and state-funded scholarships and grants. Onder’s bill would also bar them from offering those students in-state tuition.

The state doesn’t subsidize tuition for out-of-state students, so it shouldn’t subsidize tuition for students living in the country illegally, Onder said.

Opponents of Onder’s bill, including state Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, said it creates a barrier for people who grew up and went to school in Missouri from continuing their education and building a career in the state.

The University of Missouri-Columbia, the state-funded university with the highest enrollment, estimated in-state students taking 14 credits in a semester would pay $12,094, while students from out of state would pay $28,774 — more than double.

There is no separate rate for international students, who pay out-of-state tuition, University of Missouri spokesman Christian Basi said in an interview. Other schools do have a separate rate for international students.

Before and since 2015, students have had to prove they are Missouri residents to qualify for the university’s in-state tuition, Basi said. It’s highly unlikely someone in the country illegally could meet the requirements for in-state tuition, Basi said.

Basi said the number of students attending the University of Missouri without lawful immigration status is very low. They account for fewer than 10 of the about 30,000 students at the flagship Columbia campus and about two dozen of the more than 75,000 students across the system. The only undocumented students the university is aware of are under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program which allows people brought into the country as children to continue to live and work here without other authorization.

In 2014, St. Louis Community College allowed students with a Missouri high school diploma who were living in the country illegally to pay the lower in-state tuition rate, rather than the rate for international students they had been paying, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. After lawmakers added the budget language in 2015, the college went back to charging those students its higher international student rate.

Arthur taught middle school students living in the country illegally and said you would never know which students were undocumented because they grew up in Missouri. Because they can’t pay the lower in-state tuition rate, many of those students can’t afford to get higher education in Missouri, so they’re either leaving the state or not going to school, she said. They’ve lived most of their lives in Missouri, gone to school in state and consider themselves Missourians, but they can’t take advantage of the same tuition rates as their classmates, she said.

“They’re interested in staying in Missouri, and what we’re doing is essentially making it cost-prohibitive for them to remain in the state,” Arthur said.

Jerry Hobbs, executive director of the Missouri Education Reform Council, said people who are in the country illegally shouldn’t get the same benefits citizens do. Arthur questioned what students should do if they’re living under the DACA program, which allows people brought into the country as children to continue to live and work here without other authorization.

There is not a pathway for people living under DACA to become naturalized citizens aside from marrying a citizen, and there won’t be without action from the federal government, Arthur said.

Hobbs said he understands there are people who were brought to the United States as children and didn’t have a choice to be here, but citizens should still be the ones benefiting from subsidized higher education.

State Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, said allowing DACA students to pay in-state tuition would be accommodating “what everyone agrees is a failure of our immigration system.”

“We’re saying, ‘Well, that’s OK with us, we’ll just go ahead and accommodate it. It’s easier for us to continue to have a bad immigration system,” Emery said.

Sixteen state legislatures and the District of Columbia have authorized universities to offer in-state tuition to students living in the country illegally, including Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Missouri is one of six states that bar universities from offering them in-state tuition, according to the conference.

“Kansas is a state that, at a couple of their public universities, they’ve actually made a pledge to attract students who are undocumented because they see that as a great resource and talent,” Arthur said.

Onder said that’s a policy decision Kansas and other states can make, but Missouri shouldn’t go down the same path, even for people living in the country under DACA.

“They represent the most sympathetic of the illegal immigrant population, but at the same time, we as policymakers, as appropriators, need to make the decision as to which students we want to fund and not fund with state tax dollars,” he said.

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