After voting for a bill that would ensure immigrants covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program can affordably attend Arizona community colleges and universities, Senate President Karen Fann is blocking the measure.
At least one university official says the Board of Regents can do it anyway.
Regent Jay Heiler said the board “absolutely” has the autonomy to set tuition and fees at Arizona’s three state universities, and doesn’t need lawmakers to tell them to, as Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, proposes.
That includes “a differentiated tuition rate” that could apply to Arizona high school graduates who don’t qualify for in-state tuition, he said.
“And the board would be happy to work with Heather and others in the Legislature around that subject,” Heiler said.
Heiler cited the Board of Regents’ decision in 2015 to create such a rate – a non-resident rate for Arizona high school graduates that costs roughly 150 percent of in-state tuition.
The Board of Regents came to that figure after determining the average cost of attendance at state universities, with the goal of creating a non-subsidized tuition rate, according to John Arnold, executive director of the board. DACA recipients are technically eligible for the rate, which is a better alternative than paying the higher out-of-state tuition rates.
Carter said that’s not good enough.
Figures provided to her by the universities show that fewer than 400 students take advantage of the non-resident tuition rate, a far cry from the more than 2,000 DACA recipients who attended Arizona colleges and state universities when a court order rescinded their access to in-state tuition.
Carter said she has heard from plenty of Arizona high school graduates who’ve moved out of state, only to come back to attend school and were charged the out-of-state tuition rate.
Clearly the 150 percent tuition rate isn’t working, Carter said.
“Think of every kid that moved away from Arizona, thought they would like life in Texas, ends up not liking life there and wants to come back,” Carter said. “There are way more students than 400.”
The non-resident tuition rate created by the Board of Regents also only applies to students who are “lawfully present in Arizona,” according to the board’s policy manual. That leaves undocumented Arizona children without access to the discount, including the roughly 7,000 students who would’ve been eligible for the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program had it not been rescinded by the Trump administration in late 2017, according to Reyna Montoya, the founder of Aliento, a community organization that helps undocumented kids.
It’s not just state universities that are stake. Carter’s SB1217 would change all that by directing the Board of Regents, and community college governing boards, to create a new tuition rate available to anyone who has ever graduated from an Arizona high school, regardless of their residency, and their immigration status, and what year they graduated.
That bill was already approved by the state Senate, which is when Fann, a Prescott Republican, voted for it.
It was then blocked from advancing in the House by Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa.
Carter has since revived the idea with an amendment to HB2186. But the measure will never make it out of the Senate again as long as Fann has her doubts.
The Senate president said she supports in principle Carter’s desire to grant more affordable access to higher education for anyone who ever graduated from high school in Arizona, an idea that could welcome former Arizonans to state universities and community colleges decades after they graduate from high school.
But now she’s concerned about the bill’s application to DACA and undocumented students and whether it violates Proposition 300, a voter-approved law denying DACA students or anyone in the country illegally from access to in-state tuition.
“I can tell you there’s a part of that bill that I believe does not violate Prop. 300,” Fann said. “But there is another piece of it that potentially could.”
It was an about-face for Fann, who two weeks ago defended the bill against that specific concern in the Senate Rules Committee. Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, argued that allowing DACA students to attend community colleges and state universities for anything less than the out-of-state tuition rate violated the spirit of Prop. 300.
Fann told him that as long as the rate isn’t a discount on the actual cost of attendance, it’s not subsidized and wouldn’t violate the law.
“All (Prop. 300) said was, we cannot subsidize,” Fann said on April 8.
Carter said she blamed “misinformation” for Fann’s decision to kill the plan.
“Nothing has changed about the original bill and the original concept,” Carter said. “It’s the same bill as it was when we introduced it and passed it the first time.”
And if the Board of Regents believes a bill isn’t necessary to implement her vision, Carter challenged them to do so – and questioned why they haven’t yet.
“Go do it. If they can do it on their own, go do it,” she said. “I still think we need the legislation because they’re not doing it… It’s not out of the norm to prescribe in statute for a board or agency to take a specific action.”
Arnold said the board supports Carter’s legislative effort, though he, like Heiler, thinks the regents would be well within their statutory authority to broaden the availability of the non-resident tuition rate without her help.
“Heather Carter’s bill would clarify the board’s authority to set that non-resident tuition rate for Arizona high school graduates,” Arnold said. “We believe we have the authority, but it’s always helpful to have that clarified.”
In the meantime, Arnold acknowledged universities could do a better job of marketing the non-resident rate they’ve already created. And while he remained hopeful that Carter’s bill will pass, Arnold said the Board of Regents is open to discussing how it might act on its own.
“We’ll see how things play out (at the Legislature),” he said. “And then I think that is a potential future conversation.”