Plan returns to extend lower in-state college tuition rate to DACA recipients

Our guest commentator says Georgia DACA recipients should pay the same tuition as other Georgians as proposed in a bill by Rep. Kasey Carpenter. In this 2020 photo, people celebrate outside the Supreme Court after the high court threw out president Donald Trump's plans to dismantle DACA. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Marisol Estrada learned she was undocumented when she applied for her first high school job. She ran to the internet to try to understand her future prospects.

“I asked an online forum if undocumented people can attend college, and I was told that I needed to go back to my country, that I am a criminal and I shouldn’t be here, I don’t deserve to be here, all this nasty stuff,” she said.

Her senior year, she broke down in a teacher’s office and admitted for the first time that she was undocumented and she didn’t know what she would do after she graduated.

The teacher helped her apply to what is now the Armstrong Campus of Georgia Southern University and helped her fill out a mountain of scholarships.

“The only reason why I was able to go to Armstrong is because I had such a supportive teacher and a high school counselor, but a lot of people don’t get that, and even though I got several scholarships, there was still about three grand that needed to be covered,” she said. “So my teachers came up with a fundraiser in high school to help me pay for my first semester at Armstrong. That is the only reason I was able to attend. Were it not for my teachers, I would not have been able to afford the out-of-state tuition rates that Georgia charges.”

Estrada is a recipient of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. She was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when she was five. Under DACA, people like her can live and work in the U.S. without being deported, if they submit to background checks.

The approximately 21,000 DACA recipients living in Georgia get the same public education as any other Georgia student through 12th grade, but when it comes to college, they have to pay out-of-state tuition, which is much higher than in-state rates.

Students like Estrada should pay in-state tuition rates, says state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, and the Dalton Republican announced Monday he is introducing a bill to allow them to do that. If it becomes law, DACA recipients will pay the same rates as other Georgians, provided they are under 30, graduated from a Georgia high school, have been in Georgia for four years and have been living in the United States since they were at least 12.

“They pay almost three times the price, so it’s tough,” Carpenter said. “I mean, they’re taking one or two classes at a time instead of taking a full load, and then they get to a point where they realize that they’ll be in school forever, so they get disgruntled and move on.”

“It’s a workforce development issue,” he added. “I think we’ve got an opportunity to keep kids that we’ve already invested in through K-12 education, keep them continuing their education, make them more valuable workers, more valuable taxpayers.”

Atlanta resident Jennifer Zenteno, another DACA recipient, hopes to become a geriatric doctor after she graduates, but progress on her degree has been slow.

She studied for two years at what was formerly Georgia Perimeter College, now a part of Georgia State University, before transferring to Kennesaw State University.

One of Zenteno’s classmates could pay $3,774 per semester in tuition at Kennesaw State, not including fees, according to the school’s fiscal services department, but an out-of-state student would pay $10,808 for the same number of credit hours.

Zenteno received a scholarship and worked at Chick-fil-A to help cover the cost of school, but she wasn’t able to afford the bill.

“I always knew that I would have to pay out-of-state tuition, but I didn’t really know what that was going to look like. I did get a partial scholarship, the Goizueta scholarship that Georgia Perimeter had, but with obviously, tuition, it definitely was more expensive, and that did not cover even half of it,” she said.

She is working for a non-profit and saving up money for her next semester.

Carpenter’s bill mirrors one he filed last year, House Bill 997. The issue is important in Carpenter’s north Georgia community – Dalton is in Whitfield County, which is more than one-third Hispanic according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates.

The 2020 bill stalled in the House Higher Education Committee in part because of uncertainty about the future of the DACA program.

President Donald Trump attempted to end DACA, but was thwarted by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. President Joe Biden has signaled he intends to fortify the program.

The Supreme Court’s decision will make it easier for the bill to gain traction this time, Carpenter said.

If it passes, life will be much easier for Dreamers like Zenteno, she said.

“It would bring me one step closer to achieving the dreams and the goals that I have in this country, I would be able to graduate and be the first in my family to graduate, and I would also be able to provide a better life for, for my kids,” she said. “Georgia has a skills gap in IT, health care, education, and these are places where dreamers can fill those roles.”

Estrada is studying at Syracuse University’s law school in New York. Her plan is to come back to Georgia to practice immigration law, but she worries unless the state changes its policies, other DACA-receiving students will take their talents elsewhere.

“We have to go through a background check that we are contributing and we’re going to be good members of society or that we already are,” she said. “That in itself should be enough. We grew up in Georgia our whole lives, and if the state continues to charge out-of-state tuition, DACA recipients are going to continue leaving. There’s already nonprofits that are helping DACA recipients apply to out-of-state schools.”

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.