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Dreamers at Arizona universities will still pay in-state tuition – for now

Dreamers at the state’s three universities will continue paying the same tuition as other Arizona residents, at least for the time being.

The Board of Regents voted Thursday to continue its policy of interpreting Arizona law to say that those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals are entitled to the same legal – and financial – considerations as anyone else who meets state residency requirements.

Thursday’s vote comes a week after the Arizona Court of Appeals concluded that a similar policy by the Maricopa community colleges violates Proposition 300, a 2006 voter-approved law that says those not in the country legally are not entitled to in-state tuition. The same law prohibits tuition waivers, scholarships or any other aid funded with public dollars.

Bill Ridenour

Bill Ridenour

But regents Chairman Bill Ridenour noted that the Maricopa board voted Tuesday to appeal that ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court. Ridenour, who called the appellate court decision a “difficult lose” for DACA recipients, said he wants to wait to see what the state’s high court decides before making any policy changes.

Ridenour also noted that students begin returning to campuses for the fall semester in August.

“We are very appreciative of the need for some kind of certainty for those students with our universities,” he said. Ridenour said there is no reason that the current tuition policy, adopted two years ago, should be scrapped unless and until there’s a final Supreme Court ruling.

Only regent Jay Heiler voted against keeping tuition for dreamers at the in-state rate.

“We have a Court of Appeals decision founded largely in state law as enacted by the voters,” he said. “I feel this board needs to honor that.”

Jay Heiler

Jay Heiler

But Heiler does not want to require DACA recipients – there are less than 300 in the state university system – to pay the full out-of-state rate.

He pointed out that the board already has a policy on the books allowing students who graduate from Arizona high schools but do not meet other residency requirements to pay a “differentiated rate.”

In essence, this is designed to cover the actual costs of educating students, avoiding the prohibition against subsidized tuition in Proposition 300. The regents have set that rate at 150 percent of in-state tuition.

It is not being used by DACA recipients because the regents decided to offer in-state tuition after a trial judge ruled in favor of the policy adopted by Maricopa County colleges.

Heiler found himself in the minority as other regents said they were content to leave the tuition for dreamers where it is right now.

“I believe that, until we have settled law that is contrary to our ability to do this, that it’s the right thing for us to continue to offer the in-state tuition,” said Rick Myers.

Regent Ron Shoopman agreed.

“One of the things this board strongly believes is that we want to provide access and as low a possible tuition as possible within the confines of the reality that we find ourselves, so all students who attend the universities and especially those that graduate have better futures guaranteed,” he said. “We want that for all our young people.”

And Ram Krishna said there’s another fact to consider.

He pointed out that both the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University have programs that are designed to guarantee incoming students that their tuition will remain unchanged for the four years to get an undergraduate degree.

“We need to comply with that,” Krishna said.

Arizona State University has no such policy but has promised to limit year-over-year increases.

Ridenour, who is an attorney, said after Thursday’s meeting he is making no predictions on what the Supreme Court will conclude.

“I think it will be well briefed,” he said. Ridenour said he expects input not only from the parties involved — the Maricopa colleges, which implemented the policy, and Attorney General’s Office, which challenged it — but also others who have an interest in the outcome.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of politics involved,” he said. “There’s laws involved.”

He agreed with Heiler on one key point: The best outcome would be for the federal government to clarify the status of DACA recipients.

It was the Obama administration that enacted the DACA program in 2012, entitling those who arrived in this country illegally as children to remain and to work.

But Brnovich argued – and the appellate court agreed – that decision by the administration not to deport dreamers did not give them legal immigration status, making them ineligible for in-state tuition.

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump vowed to rescind DACA on his first day in office. But now, five months later, the program not only remains but his administration has said it continues to study what to do next.

There are those, however, who are pressuring the Trump administration to live up to that promise.

In a letter Thursday to the U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the attorneys general from 10 states urged that the DACA be phased out because it was enacted “without any statutory authorization from Congress.”

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich was not among those who signed the letter. But Brnovich has argued in court documents seeking to deny driver’s licenses to dreamers that there is no legal authority for DACA.

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