We tell ourselves two important things about education.
The first thing we tell ourselves is that education is a right. The great American myth is that we live in a meritocracy, where all have an equal chance of success and our lot in life is determined by how hard we work. There is enormous reason to doubt said myth, but challenging the myth is nevertheless difficult. For the well-off, challenging the myth would require admitting that they are not, as they are prone to believe, morally superior to the poor. The worse-off have less power to challenge the myth—but even when they can, they may prefer to believe that if they just work a little bit harder, wealth awaits around the corner. Equal opportunity—which meaningfully translates into a right to education—is necessary to justify a society in which some have a lot, and many have very little. In order for the myth of meritocracy to stay viable, rich and poor children must have the same opportunities on paper, even if in practice their real choice set is quite different. A guidance counselor might actively approach a middle class student with help on how to apply to colleges. If the same sort of information—albeit, cluttered by a lot of false or useless information—is available on the Internet, we rest easy, saying that both students had “access.” Often though, quantitative differences in access can become qualitative differences.
The second important thing we tell ourselves is that education is an investment. We know that education generally increases a person’s earning power, which is good for that individual, but is also good for the state. North Carolina is relatively generous in its taxpayer subsidy per student enrolled in the UNC and community college system—at $9,463 per student per year, it ranks third nationally. Despite its comparative generosity, North Carolina can make its investment back through higher tax revenue if the student ends up working and living full-time in the state. Tax receipts are a concrete example of return on investment, but making it possible for a student to go to college is likely to benefit the state in other ways. More educational opportunities should make that student physically healthier, more likely to raise children out of poverty, more likely to fuel the state’s economic growth and more self-sufficient.
If we take these two things—one, that education is a right and two, that education is an investment—as given, why would N.C. and every other state in the country not offer in-state tuition to students of all immigration statuses who meet other qualifications? Twelve states—including red states like Texas and Kansas—do allow undocumented immigrants who meet certain academic and residency requirements to get in-state tuition. In North Carolina, undocumented high school students are in practice locked out by price from receiving higher education. Out-of-state tuition is significantly higher than in-state tuition.
We realize that it’s a good thing for everyone in North Carolina if a poor citizen can go to college—that the expense to the state in the short run is outweighed many times over by the benefit in the long run. Those very same benefits accrue if a child wasn’t born in the United States but wants to live and work in N.C. By failing to help the prospective student to further his or her education, our state deprives not only that student of opportunity but also deprives itself of opportunity. If educating our state’s residents has a positive return on investment, it’s not especially meaningful to say our state can’t “afford” to do so, because if we take a long-term view, how can we afford not to make investments?
Some fear that offering in-state tuition to undocumented students will make North Carolina a “magnet” for the nation’s undocumented immigrants. It would be more accurate to say that undocumented immigrants who place a high value on the possibility on their children becoming upwardly mobile, well-educated and well-integrated members of the community might be drawn to North Carolina should we pass such a policy.
Many North Carolinian high-schoolers don’t even realize until trying to apply to college that they were brought into the country unlawfully by their parents. Almost everyone reading this newspaper is lucky enough to have the opportunity of college. Think deeply and ask yourself: Is there a moral reason why you deserve that opportunity when so many are denied it? Federal immigration reform may be on the horizon—but tuition equality is an immediate step North Carolina can take to create opportunity and improve outcomes for all those in our state. All students deserve a chance to succeed.
Elena Botella is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every Thursday. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenabotella.