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Arizona approves lower college costs for immigrants

Local students can get in-state tuition regardless of their immigration status

Students on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson Getty Images/Photo by Cheney Orr/Bloomberg

Arizona approves lower college costs for immigrants

Though 17-year-old Hazel Villatoro has called Arizona home for 16 years, she is one of the thousands of students who do not have legal immigration status in the United States. Often called “Dreamers,” these students have limited pathways to citizenship even though they grew up in the United States.

After her older sister and older brother were born in the United States, Villatoro was born in Mexico when her parents, who are Mexican citizens, returned temporarily for a family matter. Upon returning to the United States, she went through the public school system and completed high school in just three years.

As graduation approached, Villatoro set her sights on attending Arizona State University to study biology and pre-med before pursuing a career as an anesthesiologist. Both of her older siblings attended ASU, but because they hold U.S. citizenship and are Arizona residents, their tuition was significantly lower than Villatoro’s would be.

“Getting out of high school I started to see the difficulty that I had as an undocumented student,” she said. “I questioned whether I would be able to apply or if I was going to be able to afford it.”

During the midterm elections, Arizona voters approved Proposition 308, allowing students who had attended school in Arizona for at least two years and graduated high school in the state to pay in-state tuition at public colleges even if they were in the United States illegally.

Under a 2006 Arizona law, students like Villatoro were not permitted to receive in-state tuition, state-funded financial aid, or public scholarships. Arizona was one of six states—and the only border state—with laws that prevented illegal immigrants from paying in-state tuition at public institutions.

In 2019, the Arizona Board of Regents loosened restrictions by allowing students who spent three years in and graduated from an in-state high school to pay 150 percent of in-state tuition instead of out-of-state rates.

But for Villatoro, who was a student member of the “Yes on 308” campaign, the rate was still much too high to attend a public school. She enrolled at Grand Canyon University, a private Christian university, where she received a full-ride scholarship.

“Arizona students that graduate from our Arizona high schools should have access to Arizona in-state tuition at our public colleges and universities, it’s that simple,” said Heather Carter, executive vice president of Greater Phoenix Leadership, an organization that represents executives from top companies in the state. Carter previously served in both the Arizona House and Senate.

According to Arizona state law, the state legislature cannot repeal a previously successful ballot measure without voter approval. After being introduced to the legislature by Republican state Sen. Paul Boyer, the Senate voted 17-13 in March of 2021 to pass Proposition 308. The House voted 33-27 in May of the same year before the issue went to voters this month.

Some critics of the measure argued that allowing those who entered the country illegally to access state-funded financial assistance would increase taxes for residents. John Giles, mayor of Mesa, Ariz., and a supporter of the proposition, said the proposal would not affect tax rates.

A joint legislative budget committee analysis reported that revenues across public and community colleges could decline by approximately $9.9 million once affected students became eligible to pay in-state tuition. However, the report indicated that potential increases in enrollment as a result of the proposition could offset lost revenue.

More than 3,600 Arizona students are set to benefit from the new legislation, according to a study conducted by the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit organization that advocates for immigration to the U.S.

According to the study, those students could generate as much as $23 million annually in consumer spending and approximately $4.9 million in tax revenues after completing a degree and finding local employment.

“This is $23 million every year that Arizona wouldn’t have otherwise just based on the fact that these young people were able to get a higher education and get a higher paying job,” said Leani García Torres, Deputy Director of State and Local Initiatives for the AIC.

Supporters of the bill are hopeful that access to in-state tuition and financial aid will lead more students to stay in Arizona for school and work in industries experiencing shortages.

A January 2022 report from Becker’s Hospital Review showed that more than 37 percent of Arizona hospitals were experiencing critical staffing shortages. According to data from the Arizona Personnel Administrators Association, 27 percent of teaching positions remained unfilled in the state after the first month of the 2022-23 school year.

After completing her undergraduate studies, Villatoro plans to stay in the state for medical school. She said she was grateful that in-state tuition and financial aid will be available for her and students like her.

Lauren Canterberry

Lauren Canterberry is a reporter for WORLD. She graduated from the World Journalism Institute and the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism, both in 2017. She worked as a local reporter in Texas and now lives in Georgia with her husband.

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