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Commentary: ASSET bill is morally, fiscally sound

By Moira Cullen, DFER Colorado State Director

(From Education News Colorado, January 24th 2012)

This commentary was submitted by Moira Cullen, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Senate Bill 12-015, the ASSET Bill, has its first committee hearing this Thursday, January 26th. The bill enables Colorado high school graduates -- regardless of their immigration status -- to attend the state's colleges and universities at a cost between in-state tuition paid by other residents and tuition paid by students from outside Colorado.

Immigration is one of the cultural third rails of our times: Just about no one of any political party will defend current immigration policy. Rightly so. Let's all agree that immigration policy is a huge mess that has resisted the few sincere attempts to try to fix it.

But in this burst of honesty, let's also admit that anything that touches the third rail of immigration is an issue where emotion too often clouds judgment. And clear-eyed judgment strongly suggests that this is a bill that should be passed.

To start, let's be clear about what is not in the bill: Taxpayer subsidies. Under the ASSET bill, undocumented students will pay both their share and the state's share. There is zero cost to Colorado's taxpayers, and an additional cost to the undocumented students - who will pay on average about 40 percent more than traditional in-state tuition. The cost of college for undocumented students is neither free nor subsidized.

Let's also remember the bill's focus: Students already in the U.S., -- usually entering no later than 12 or 13 years of age, and often far earlier - who have completed high school and both want and are academically prepared to go to college. They have not dropped out of school; they do not have criminal records. Many came here as young kids. Some arrived as infants. None of them - not one - made the decision to enter this country illegally. Think what you will, but recognize that the decision to come to the U.S. was made for them, not by them.

No other children are punished for their parents' "crimes"

Think that their parents are criminals for this choice? OK then. We can debate the appropriate punishment for parents who have broken the law to give their families a better life. But what we can't really debate is this: For no other crime committed by parents do we punish their children. Not one. Adults do some terrible things, and we do not diminish the rights of their children because of this conduct. Children of convicted thieves, perjurers, Wall-Street embezzlers, and serial murderers all get to vote, drive, move freely about the country, and pay in-state tuition.

Say what you might about parents who cross a country's borders without permission, but on the scale of criminal deeds, it isn't going to get featured on CSI. Nor will you see pictures of these transgressing parents in the post office. So whatever one may think of immigration, it is a unique and uncharitable notion that we punish children - most of them who have spent more of their lives in this country than any other - for the decisions of their parents.

Now, if the moral argument here still leaves you cold, let's appeal to the other side of the torso: Your wallet.

Currently, undocumented students are required by federal law to have full access to public K-12 education. To keep the math easy, let's assume the average undocumented student attends six years of K-12 education. Let's also conservatively say that the marginal cost per year for each student is about $8,000. So we are spending roughly $50,000 on each undocumented student who graduates from a public high school.

What is the value of a college degree? A recent study at Georgetown University found that "over a lifetime, a bachelors degree is worth $2.8 million, on average." What happens to that $2.8 million? It is taxed. Let's assume even at a relatively low rate of 25 percent. Using simple math, that's $700,000 in lost taxes over a lifetime. And realize that as income grows, spending increases, and a college graduate is going to both pay more in sales tax and purchase more goods and services. And cost far less in social welfare.

A strong, economic rationale for higher education access

So, time value of money aside, we invest somewhere around $50,000 in K-12 education for a kid who wants nothing more than to go get a college degree so that they can live well enough to pay, on average, $650,000 back into the public coffers. Is the right economic decision here to prevent this kid from attending college?

Colorado, often a bastion of independent thought, is well behind this curve. Thirteen states - including Texas - understand that there is an economic rationale to allowing undocumented high school graduates in-state tuition and access to their state colleges.

Colorado's K-12 education policy is currently focused on reducing the dropout rate and getting all kids ready for college. Policy contradictions are nothing new, but it staggers the mind to think Colorado will, with one legislative hand spend increasing sums of money to get kids prepared for college, only to have the other hand deny them the opportunity to attend - and pay 40 percent more in tuition than other in-state students.

SB12-015 was introduced by Colorado's leading education reform Democrat, Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston along with Senators Angela Giron, Lucia Guzman and Pat Steadman, and House sponsors Representative Crisanta Duran and Angela Williams.

Both Governor John Hickenlooper (D) and House Speaker Frank McNulty (R) opened the 2012 legislative session with a commitment to create jobs and further our state's economic development. Let's hope that the legislature can ignore the emotional baggage of adult immigration to both act rationally and improve our future tax revenues by focusing on kids. SB12-015 will not cost Colorado a dime, and it will lead to both better lives and better economics. There are no losers.

Democrats for Education Reform is strongly supporting SB 12-015 because the reality is that it is not just the students who benefit. No matter if you feel this in your heart or in your wallet, who benefits is clear. We all do.