Lawmakers debate college tuition for DACA recipients, campus free speech

University of Georgia students eat lunch outside a dining hall. Legislation being debated under the Gold Dome could mean big changes for Georgia college students. Photo credit: Grant Blankenship/GPB

Colleges across Georgia are working to educate students in the midst of a pandemic that has changed the face of instruction and brought new worries to students, faculties and staff.

But hot-button issues like immigration, campus free speech and college affordability have not gone away with the pandemic, and all of these long-simmering topics came up at an at times emotional meeting of the House Higher Education Committee Friday.

Dalton Republican state Rep. Kasey Carpenter pitched his plan to allow recipients of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, to pay the same in-state public college tuition rates as other Georgia residents.

Now those students, who were brought to the United States as undocumented minors and receive federal protection from deportation, pay the same rate as students from other states, which can be up to three times as expensive.

D.A. King, an anti-illegal immigration activist, said language in the bill “is designed to give a benefit of a reduced tuition rate for people who are clearly illegal aliens without giving that same reduced tuition rate to Americans who right now are sitting in Michigan or Nebraska, who want to go to UGA or Georgia State or Kennesaw State. I know people personally in Michigan who want to do that and can’t afford it.”

Carpenter, whose district is largely Hispanic, bristled at suggestions that DACA recipients are less likely to fit in in the U.S.

“My heart breaks when you hear conversation about not assimilating into society, because I would offer an opportunity for any of you to drive up to Dalton and see the assimilation,” Carpenter said, his voice filled with emotion.

“These individuals are Daltonians. They’re our neighbors. We worship with them, we play football with them, and it is not what is being portrayed. These are Georgians who, by no fault of their own, were brought here, and this is a solution.”

Jamie Rangel, a Dalton resident who works for pro-immigration lobbying firm FWD.us, was one of several DACA recipients to ask the committee to support the measure.

Rangel came to Georgia when he was six months old, but when he graduated high school, he learned college would be much more expensive for him than for his classmates.

“I’m just asking for a level playing field in the state that I know, that I truly love, and I am proud to call home,” he said. “I am not asking for special treatment.”

Republican Rep. Chuck Martin of Alpharetta, who chairs the Higher Education Committee, did not say whether he will bring the measure to a vote, but said he is tired of DACA recipients being used as pawns by both sides.

“This committee is going to work toward an answer, whether we get one this year and we get it passed, that’ll be the will of the committee, but we’re going to work in good faith to represent the citizens of Georgia on this matter, and I’ll look for each and every member of the committee and those that have testified before us today to help with that,” he said.

Campus free speech legislation also stirred sharp debate during the meeting, as Fayetteville Republican State Rep. Josh Bonner’s House Bill 1 aims to fight back against what many conservatives call attacks on conservative or faith-based campus groups.

It is similar to a bill that passed the Senate last year and would prevent public universities from banning lawful speech, creating so-called “free speech zones” or denying privileges to student groups based on their beliefs.

Democrats countered that the bill could force colleges to pay for student groups that infringe on the rights of other students such as racist, misogynist or anti-LGBTQ groups.

“There are any number of groups that offend me on any number of levels, whether it’s philosophical or religious or any number of levels out there,” Bonner said. “I default back to the position that in this environment, especially on our college campuses and universities, that the answer is not to restrict speech, but the answer is to allow more.”

The legislation could also force universities to allow groups on campus under state law that would be barred under federal law, said Brooke Bowen, legal counsel for the University System of Georgia.

“That is our concern, that we are put in a situation of either violating state law or violating federal law, and facing consequences for both,” she said.

Those consequences could include losing federal money or facing federal discrimination lawsuits from students, she said.

Georgia universities are already facing lawsuits over free speech, Bonner said, pointing to a $50,000 settlement Georgia Tech was forced to pay out after its student government association denied paying speaking fees to a presenter known for homophobic messages.

“I would challenge the notion that this would allow for more lawsuits and more cause of action,” Bonner said. “We’re already there.”

High-ranking House Democrats brought their own legislation to the committee with an intent to expand access to popular state scholarships.

Powder Springs Minority Whip David Wilkerson’s House Bill 283 would eliminate the standardized testing requirement to receive the Zell Miller Scholarship at public and private universities across Georgia. Recipients would still need to achieve a 3.7 high school GPA under Wilkerson’s bill, but they would no longer need to score 1,200 on the SAT or 26 on the ACT.

The proposal would increase HOPE costs by $35 million in the first year, and by $131 million by the 2024 school year, according to a state auditor’s report.

Georgia universities waived SAT and ACT as admission requirements last year because testing sites were shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Zell Miller Scholarship recipients from the class of 2020 have had their deadlines to submit test scores extended twice, most recently to the end of the academic year. The governor’s office is monitoring the availability of testing sites to determine the process for the class of 2021, said State Treasurer Lynne Riley.

The past year has shown colleges that test scores are not the best predictor of college success, Wilkerson said. Standardized tests also put students from wealthier and more educated families at an advantage.

A separate bill focused on lottery-funded financial assistance filed by Atlanta Rep. Stacey Evans, a Democrat, would allow college students who do not initially qualify for the Zell Miller Scholarship to become eligible if they maintain a 3.3 GPA for two consecutive semesters, also sidestepping standardized tests.

Marietta Republican state Rep Ginny Ehrhart argued against the change, saying standardized tests can help admissions officers see which students excel.

Evans filed two more bills seeking to expand the HOPE Grant, the version of the HOPE Scholarship for Georgia’s technical colleges.

House Bill 87 would allow students receiving the HOPE Grant, to pay for associate degrees. A student working on an associate degree at a technical college could now qualify for the HOPE Scholarship, which has more rigorous requirements.

House Bill 88 proposes to fund HOPE Grants to cover full tuition. The coverage is now about 76% of tuition.

The money to fund the Democratic proposals would come from state lottery funds, Evans said.

The estimated cost of Evans’ two bills is about $40 million dollars per year. More than $780 million sits in an unrestricted lottery fund, and the state has added more than $70 million to that fund each year for the last ten years, she said.

“The people of this state passed the lottery originally in the early 90s to help more students go to college, not to have money sitting in an account that, as far as I can tell, is barely earning the interest that we would all earn on our checking accounts,” she said.