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VOL. 39 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 20, 2015

Time right for Legislature to pass tuition equality

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Students dressed as graduates, and holding signs identifying their future career aspirations, urged representatives to vote for Tuition Equality in late March for “Tuition Equality Day on the Hill.”

-- Photo Courtesy Of Tennessee Immigrant And Refugee Rights Coalition

Tennessee has a unique opportunity to help the state economy and support education. Passage of the “Tuition Equality” bill in the upcoming state legislative session will provide a critical chance to educate thousands of Tennessee youth and narrow the skills gap that exists for Tennessee employers.

This bill would offer in-state tuition to the thousands of children who graduate from Tennessee high schools, but are currently required to pay “out-of-state tuition” to attend Tennessee colleges and universities because of immigration status. These children arrived to the United States with their parents but without legal immigration status. President Barack Obama’s 2012 executive action granted them deferred action (from deportation) and eligibility for work visas. Despite this legal recognition, these bright young graduates of our public schools are not eligible for in-state college tuition, which generally runs about 65 percent less than out-of-state tuition.

University presidents, educators, immigrant advocates and business leaders favor the tuition equality bill in Tennessee. With bi-partisan support, this bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), sailed through the Senate last year by a vote of 21-12. It fell one vote short in the House, but Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) will push for its passage again this year.

Supporting good students who want to attend college and contribute to our communities and our state makes sense. Tuition equality intersects with Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative, which set the goal of seeing at least 55 percent of Tennesseans achieve some post-secondary education or training. Haslam understands that a more highly educated work force results in better paying jobs for Tennesseans and a healthier overall economy.

Last year, according to Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, 18,000 jobs went unfilled in our county because of a lack of qualified workers. Haslam has echoed this lament at a statewide level, noting this past April that “there are hundreds of thousands of jobs in Tennessee that are going unfilled because they’re available, but we don’t have the right people trained for them.” Opening up educational and training opportunities to more graduates of Tennessee high schools is a simple and logical step toward meeting our economic needs.

This is especially true given that Hispanics in our state suffer lower levels of educational attainment than any other major demographic due to many factors including economic barriers. In the United States, only 20.3 percent of Latinos have attained post-secondary training. In Tennessee, the number drops to 14.7 percent. These numbers are unsustainable in the long term, given that 18.4 percent of the national population is Hispanic (25 percent by 2065).

In Memphis, schools like Aurora Collegiate Academy, an elementary school directed by Grant Monda, are making great strides in providing our children with a strong educational foundation and vision toward higher education. The school’s demographics run about 50 percent African-American and 50 percent Hispanic. Because this is the United States of America, we educate all kids in primary and secondary school without questioning their immigration status. And it only makes sense to build on this investment by clearing the path for all students who hope to attend college.

Tuition Equality is good for Tennessee and we hope to see it pass through the upcoming legislative session. This legislation is unique nationally since two Republican members of our Legislature – with the support of a Republican governor – are marshaling it through the General Assembly. Passing Tuition Equality would demonstrate to our state, and to the nation, that politics can function when politicians, educational leaders and business leaders come together to do what is clearly best for our state. Offering young people a better chance to earn a college education and give back to a state that has invested in them represents a coherent social vision rooted in our most fundamental values and traditions.

Bryce W. Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney. Michael J. LaRosa teaches history at Rhodes College.

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