CERDA: A lesson on SB 475

Connecticut State Democratic Representative Roberta B. Willis is an amiable woman. Intelligent and accomplished. A former teacher and activist. People know Ms. Willis for her charitable contributions to children’s education, health programs and youth service groups. She is not unlike many of our elementary school teachers. So you wouldn’t expect her to crush the dreams of hundreds of high school college-hopefuls.

On February 22, Representative Willis will do just that. She will kill Senate Bill 475, a potential piece of legislation that would allow undocumented Connecticut students to receive institutional and state financial aid. Currently, SB 475 is stalled in the Connecticut Higher Education Committee, and Representative Willis is the last member of the committee who refuses to let the bill move forward for a public hearing. Her intransigence will be disastrous for the cause of higher education.

College education remains beyond the means of most undocumented students. A 2011 Connecticut state law, which Willis supported, guarantees that undocumented Connecticut residents do not have to pay out-of-state tuition fees. This measure has eased the financial burden of these students, but they still face more than $8,000 in education-related costs per year. This high cost of tuition serves as a deterrent to college attendance.

Scholarships and grants also remain beyond the reach of immigrant students. Without a social security number, they are ineligible to apply for state financial aid, which is reserved for permanent legal residents. Although technically eligible for institutional aid, undocumented students are barred from obtaining public university scholarships because the applications also require a social security number.

SB 475 would address these challenges. Under this piece of legislation, Connecticut would prohibit state universities from denying aid to students on the basis of their immigration status. The Connecticut Board of Regents would be required to create a FAFSA-like financial aid application that would not require a social security number. SB 475 would also aid students who attend community college. Connecticut would require two-year institutions to set aside a portion of their tuition funds for undocumented students in need. Thus, immigrant students who cannot afford to attend state universities would still have options to finance their education at community colleges.

Unfortunately, people like Rep. Willis oppose these proposed measures. They think that SB 475 is “too controversial” and that Connecticut taxpayers would not support subsidizing immigrant education.

But Willis ignores the benefits that SB 475 would have for the entire state. Granting state and institutional financial aid to qualified students will stimulate better academic performance in schools and increase high school graduation rates — especially among immigrant populations. Undocumented students will be motivated to improve their grades if they know that a college education is financially feasible. More undocumented college students will be able to earn a degree and obtain high-paying jobs, which will increase tax revenues for the state government. State legislators thus have a powerful incentive to subsidize immigrant education. Taxpayers will benefit as well. Higher college graduation rates among immigrant populations could lead to lower expenditures on state health and welfare programs, which are typically spent on undocumented minorities. Do these economic benefits sound “too controversial”? Considering her background in education and social activism, Rep. Willis should support SB 475.

Education is the most precious gift that we can give to our youth. Rejecting SB 475 would be a heartless decision that would leave undocumented students with little hope for improving their lives. If Roberta Willis succeeds in stopping the bill in the Higher Education Committee this week, then Connecticut will lose a generation full of educated workers and citizens. Whether Willis admits it or not, her decision would be the harshest lesson that she could ever teach us.

Juan Carlos Cerda is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact him at juan.cerda@yale.edu .

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