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Lawmakers may end high tuition rate for immigrant students

Posted at 7:29 AM, May 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-08 08:29:29-04

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Students living in the country illegally no longer would be required to pay international tuition rates to Missouri colleges and universities under a proposal approved by a key legislative committee as part of negotiations over a proposed state budget plan for next year.

Immigrant students now are charged the tuition rate for international students but that requirement would end under the deal.

Other deals hammered out by House and Senate budgeters include a slight increase in funding for higher education institutions and a deal on how to pay for repairs to bridges across the state. The budget still needs approval from the full House and Senate, and lawmakers face a Friday deadline.

If enacted, changes to the higher education budget will mean Missouri colleges and universities no longer risk losing funding if they charge students with an "unlawful immigration status" anything less than the tuition rate charged to international students.

Immigrant advocates lauded the move.

"It's vital that DACA-eligible immigrants have access to education, which ultimately benefits our state," Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates Executive Director Andrew Fitzgerald said in an email. "While Missouri has long way to go before it is a state that truly welcomes immigrants, this was a welcome and appreciated move by legislators in Jeff City."

Missouri is one of six states that currently block in-state tuition for students living in the country illegally, according the National Conference of State Legislatures. Actions by lawmakers in 16 states allow in-state tuition, and another five states provide for that through state university systems.

Missouri implemented its policy in 2015.

"We are not saying that they cannot provide in-state tuition to those with unlawful status," Republican House Budget Chairman Cody Smith told colleagues as he argued in favor of the policy. "We're just saying they cannot use state dollars to do so."

But critics of the current practice said it pushes longtime Missouri residents to attend college in other states without such policies. Rep. Ingrid Burnett called the policy "regressive."

"It takes tuition dollars out of our state at a time when our higher ed institutions need the enrollment," the Kansas City Democrat said. "There isn't a good reason for this, other than something based in fear."

The proposed budget for next fiscal year, which begins in July, still includes a ban on colleges providing scholarships to students living in the country illegally.

Legislative budgeters also agreed to give colleges and universities at least another $1 million each in funding next fiscal year compared to this year.

House and Senate negotiators also reached a consensus over how to pay to fix 250 bridges across the state, as called for by Republican Gov. Mike Parson.

Lawmakers ditched Parson's original plan to borrow roughly $350 million to fund the repairs, citing concerns about the estimated $100 million in interest costs.

Instead, legislators have tentatively agreed to spend $50 million in un-earmarked general revenue on bridge repairs next fiscal year, plus another $50 million for a local cost-share program.

If the state gets a federal infrastructure grant to help pay to fix an Interstate 70 bridge in the mid-Missouri city of Rocheport, that would kick in another roughly $300 million in bonding under another pending proposal.