New Jersey DREAM Act is nice, but lowering tuition in would be nicer

 (Cartoon by Rob Tornoe)

(Cartoon by Rob Tornoe)

There is a lot of debate raging throughout the Garden State about a bill making its way to Chris Christie’s desk that would allow undocumented immigrants, under certain circumstances, to take advantage of in-state tuition rates and financial aid at the state’s universities.

Mind you, much of this debate is taking place on dark corners of the internet among knuckle-dragging hate mongers that see the world “illegal” and suddenly become the arbiters of what’s right and wrong for America. The term “nativist” comes to mind, and even though many New Jerseyans can see the Statue of Liberty during their morning commutes, the idea of immigration, illegal or not, seems abhorrent to them.

To be clear, the legislation would allow in-state tuition rates to be available to undocumented immigrants who have attended a New Jersey high school for three more years, and are willing to sign an affidavit pledging to legalize their immigration status as soon as our broken system allows it. Very reasonable, in my mind, but not to the editors of the Asbury Park Press, who urge Christie to veto it because it’s an “insult to those who play by the rules.” 

Let’s address this point, since it’s the “but they broke the law” argument that right-wingers seem to cling to the most when it comes to discussing any rights for undocumented immigrants. The bill’s focus is narrow, only applying to young people already in New Jersey who were brought here as children. The idea that people want to punish kids for actions their parents took seems awfully punitive, and downright un-American.

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If they got past their anger and actually studied the issue, they’d find that allowing the sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants the ability to receive in-state tuition rates and student aid would actually be a boon for the state. Many of the students who graduate college would undoubtedly stay and work right here, paying taxes on the higher earnings their degrees would afford them. It would also act to bring people into the light and gain legal status, allowing law enforcement to focus on those who actually pose a threat to the state’s security and the well being of its citizens. 

Let’s now also forget taxpayers have already invested heavily in these kids by allowing them to attend kindergarden through 12th grade the same as every other New Jersey child. It seems kind-of silly to arbitrarily cut off that support, and negate the upside of all that hard work and investment, when that kid reaches college.

But, let’s not fool ourselves – in-state tuition is much lower than out-of-state tuition, but it is still too expensive for most individuals to afford. For the 2013-14 school year, the on-campus tuition for New Jersey residents at Rutgers University is a mind-blowing $25,077 a year. That’s over $100,000 for a degree, assuming the student can work hard and finish in four years. Undocumented or not, that’s an enormous burden we’re placing on our students. To put that number into perspective, in 2000 in-state tuition and fees were just $6,333.

Rutgers is hardly alone in this increase. Nearly every university in the state, public or private, has seen similar increases in tuition costs over the same time period. College officials blame the climb on decreases in state funding and the increasing costs of health care and faculty salaries, but I’m sure the enormous amount of money a school like Rutgers throws at its athletic department doesn’t help keep the higher cost of education from rising. Rutgers has spent a whopping $2.3 million alone on trying to quell scandals involving bullying in its athletic department, already the second-most subsided program in the country.

In fact, according to a Bloomberg article in 2012, each Rutgers student paid over $4,200 over 4 years in fees just to subsidize the football team. All told, Rutgers allocated $19.4 million to athletics in 2012, enough to hire about 256 assistant professors or 132 full professors. 

So allowing undocumented immigrats to attend state schools at the same cost other New Jerseyans benefit from is the right move, but let’s not pretend it’s the end all be all. Christie has indictaed that he would support it, but he should also support policies that would help slow the out-of-control growth in tuition rates at our state’s schools. After all, the burden of paying a lifetime of student loans is the same, regardless of where someone was born.


Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. Follow him on Twitter @RobTornoe, and check out more of his work at

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