Each year, thousands of undocumented students graduate in Tennessee with hopes of continuing their education. But no matter how long they have lived in the state, they must pay over three times as much as their US-born peers to attend a public college or university—even if they meet all other residency requirements. Under the leadership of our youth group, JUMP, we have been fighting for tuition equality in Tennessee since 2012. We believe that all Tennessee graduates should be given the same opportunity to continue their education, regardless of their country of birth or immigration status. This year, we brought our fight to the state legislature.
In January, two bills were filed that would have expanded access to in-state tuition rates to many undocumented Tennessee graduates. One of these bills, SB1951/HB1992, was discussed in committees for more than a month. Yesterday, the bill was moved to the General Subcommittee of the Senate Education Committee, signaling that the bill will not be voted on this year.
Cesar Bautista, a youth leader and our campaign coordinator, had this to say about the decision to shelve the bill for the year: "It is unfortunate that the legislature has missed an opportunity to strengthen our state's economy, generate revenue for our universities, and give every student the opportunity to pay their fair share for college. When undocumented high school seniors graduate this May, they will have to pay 3 times as much for school, making higher education impossible for most. Immigrant youth have advocated for this bill for two years and we won't quit until every student can pay a fair price for college. Our dreams are what's at stake, and we will never give up."
While we're disappointed by the legislature's inaction, we have many signs of progress to celebrate. Here are just a few:
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick signed on as co-sponsor. “I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “It’s better to have educated kids than uneducated kids, and it not only helps them and their future, it helps our economy and everyone in Tennessee.”
The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce endorsed the bill. According to their release, “The annual cost difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition can be as much as $8,000 for a public university in our region....The proposed legislation aligns with the chamber’s policy principles of increasing the number of postsecondary degrees in the region and immigration-related reforms that address workforce needs.”
The Interim President of the University of Memphis urged legislators to support the bill and announced a new scholarship fund for undocumented students. President Martin said, "The economic contributions that this group of students could make to our community and our state merit a fresh examination of this issue, one that will encourage degree attainment.”
Dr. Jesse Register, Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools, endorsed the bill and urged Governor Haslam to include undocumented students in the new Tennessee Promise program. “Let’s provide every Tennessee high school graduate the same access to affordable higher education through tuition equality by including all of them in both the in-state tuition promise and the opportunity for two years of community or technical college tuition free,” Register wrote.
We changed the conversation. One of our goals this year was to shift the narrative about tuition equality, helping people to understand the issue and recognize the real impact of tuition policies on Tennessee students. And we succeeded. We were in the media several times every week during the legislative session--bringing DREAMers' stories into living rooms across Tennessee. Journalists noted the changing tone and softening stance of legislators on this issue.
Don't worry, we'll be back!
We're already looking ahead and planning our next steps forward. We are committed to building support for tuition equality across the state and bringing a bill back next year, but we'll need your help! Please join us, and become a TIRRC member today!
Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition
2195 Nolensville Pike
Nashville TN 37211