National Immigration Law Center
Sign up for email updates.

Our mission is to defend & advance the rights & opportunities of low-income immigrants and their family members.

Campaigns on Education Gained Momentum in 2011


OCTOBER 2011  |  Download Adobe reader symbol - PDF

State Campaigns on Education for Immigrant Students
Gained Momentum in 2011

The 2011 state legislative sessions witnessed a boost in activity on issues involving access to education for immigrant students. Advocates for the federal DREAM Act shifted their focus to the states, moving “tuition equity” bills or measures that expand access to scholarships or financial aid for students regardless of status.[1] Educators and students also fought proposals to restrict in-state tuition or to deny enrollment in higher education to undocumented students. State legislators in at least nine states introduced bills that impose barriers to K-12 education, including proposals that require schools to verify the immigration status of children or their parents. Measures introduced in a couple of states sought to reduce barriers to elementary and secondary education by making it easier for families to show that they live in the school district.

Advocates made significant progress in persuading legislators to improve access to education for all students this year, with campaigns to continue in several states next year. The results of the 2011 sessions, however, were mixed, with both inclusive and restrictive bills becoming law. Challenges to these new laws, through litigation and pending voter referendums, have begun.

Tuition Equity Laws: Background

Tuition equity laws provide in-state tuition rates at colleges or universities to students who attend high school in a state for a number of years, graduate, and meet certain other criteria, regardless of their immigration status. These laws help make college more affordable for many U.S. citizens and documented immigrants, as well as for undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. as children and have grown up here. Studies demonstrate a reduction in high school dropout rates, an increase in college enrollment, and other economic and social benefits in states that adopt these policies.[2] Tuition equity laws have withstood every legal challenge brought to date, including, most recently, a unanimous California Supreme Court opinion upholding California’s law.[3] In June 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review this decision. This bolstered the confidence of legislators and advocates who pursued similar legislation in other states.

Advocacy on Tuition Equity: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

At the beginning of the legislative session, eleven states had tuition equity laws in place. Tuition equity bills were introduced in at least twelve states this year: Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. After extensive negotiations, Maryland’s bill passed both houses of the legislature and was signed into law on May 10.[4] The new law, however, faced an immediate backlash, as its opponents launched a referendum campaign. The Republican-led petition drive employed an online tool to facilitate the collection of signatures. Having garnered almost twice the number of requisite signatures, the referendum was formally certified on July 22 and is scheduled to appear on the November 2012 ballot. A lawsuit filed by CASA of Maryland has challenged the validity of the electronic signatures gathered for this petition drive.

Students, educators, and advocates in Connecticut offered passionate testimony in support of their state’s tuition equity bill, which was signed into law on June 13, 2011. Most recently, Rhode Island’s Board of Governors for Higher Education voted unanimously to provide access to in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities to certain students, regardless of their immigration status. Governor Chafee expressed his support for the policy, which is scheduled to take effect in 2012.

Efforts to improve access to higher education gained ground in other states as well. Bills in Colorado and Oregon passed one house and came close to passage in the second house. Tuition equity bills in Massachusetts received a boost when the governor appeared at a joint hearing, expressing his support for the measures, which the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimated would increase the state’s revenues by up to $7.4 million by the fourth year.[5] Advocacy on these measures, fueled by the inspiring students who were profiled in these debates, will continue next session.

Wisconsin, by contrast, lost its tuition equity law when the governor incorporated the repeal into an omnibus budget measure. Although DREAMers and advocates pushed back vigorously, the legislature adopted the package. The setback in Wisconsin may be explained by broader political changes in that state rather than by the in-state tuition issue itself. But education measures could not escape the larger battles on immigration this year. Indiana’s bill, denying in- state tuition to students who are not lawfully present, and the omnibus anti-immigrant bill, which included provisions denying in-state tuition, scholarships, grants, and financial aid to undocumented students, both became law.

Attempts to repeal the tuition equity laws, in California, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah, were unsuccessful this year. Policymakers, educators, labor, and business groups in these states recognize the ongoing benefits of the tuition equity policies. In addition to the policy adopted in Rhode Island, twelve states currently have tuition equity laws on the books: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Minnesota has a “flat tuition rate” available in some of its college systems. At least two of these states, Texas and New Mexico, also offer state financial aid to eligible students, regardless of their status. As detailed below, California will implement a similar financial aid policy in 2013. For more information on tuition equity laws, see NILC’s "Basic Facts about In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrant Students."

Scholarships and Financial Aid: The Next Step

Even when in-state tuition rates are available, higher education remains inaccessible for many students and their families if they cannot qualify for financial aid or scholarships. On July 25, 2011, California’s governor signed California DREAM part I (AB 130), providing access to scholarships derived from private sources donated to public colleges and universities, for students who are eligible to pay in-state tuition rates. Governor Brown signed California DREAM part II (AB 131) on October 8, 2011. The new law will make these students eligible for state financial aid and fee waivers. A third measure enacted in California ensures that all students, regardless of status, may serve in student government and receive any scholarships, grants, fee waivers, or reimbursement for expenses connected with that service.

On August 1, 2011, Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois signed a bill establishing a DREAM fund commission that will provide privately funded scholarships to children of immigrants, make a College Savings Pool and prepaid tuition available to persons with individual taxpayer identification numbers (ITINs), and ensure that professional development for school counselors addressed the needs of and opportunities for children of immigrants. The governor personally pledged $1,000 to the fund.[6] At the signing ceremony, a student who had been told by a high school counselor that going to college would be impossible because she could not receive financial aid emphasized that “all students deserve the same opportunities to continue with their higher education.”[7]

Legislators in New York, Connecticut and at least two other states also introduced measures that expand access to scholarships, financial aid, or other opportunities for immigrant students this year. Advocates will continue their campaigns on these bills in the coming year.

Banning Enrollment in Higher Education

Not content with charging out-of-state tuition rates and denying financial aid, grants or scholarships, legislators in at least eight states sought to ban undocumented students from enrolling in higher education. Prior to this year, only South Carolina had enacted such a ban. In May, the Montana legislature voted to place a referendum on the November 2012 ballot asking whether “state services,” including enrollment in a public university and financial aid, should be denied to undocumented immigrants. The measure, if passed by Montana voters, would require state agencies to notify federal immigration authorities of any undocumented immigrant applying for one of these “state services.”

Alabama’s governor signed an omnibus anti-immigrant bill into law on June 9, 2011. Arguably the most draconian anti-immigrant law enacted by any state to date and intruding on every aspect of daily life, the law denies public post-secondary education to undocumented immigrants as well as many categories of lawfully present immigrants who do not have either lawful permanent residence (a green card) or a nonimmigrant visa. The law also requires K-12 schools to verify the immigration status of children and parents enrolling their children in elementary or secondary school. A broad coalition of civil rights groups, including the National Immigration Law Center, filed a lawsuit challenging Alabama’s law. The restrictions on access to higher education for immigrants were preliminarily enjoined by the federal district court on Sept. 11, 2011. (More information about the Alabama law is available from our State & Local Law & Polices Resources webpage.)

Bills that sought to deny enrollment to undocumented students in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia were defeated or failed to move in 2011. Although DREAMers and their allies were able to prevent a total ban on enrollment, Georgia’s Board of Regents proceeded with its plan to deny enrollment to undocumented students who are accepted by the five most selective institutions in the University System of Georgia.

Access to K-12 Education

Legislators in at least nine states introduced measures targeting immigrant school children this year. Although a few of these bills would have denied enrollment to children who could not prove that they or their parents have a lawful status, most of the measures fell short of an explicit ban. Instead, they created obstacles such as document requirements, inquiries about immigration status, and reporting provisions that would intimidate families and prevent them from enrolling their children in school.

In May 2011, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice issued a “Dear Colleague” letter, fact sheet, and question-and-answer document reminding public schools that, as the Supreme Court held in Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), all students have a right to public education, regardless of their immigration status. The federal agencies warned that enrollment practices that “chill or discourage the participation, or lead to the exclusion, of students based on their or their parents’ or guardians’ actual or perceived citizenship or immigration status . . . contravene Federal law.”[8]

State legislators, undaunted, continued to press these types of policies. Alabama’s provisions targeting elementary and secondary school children were inserted into the states’ omnibus anti-immigrant bill during the final negotiations on the legislation. The law requires schools to determine whether children enrolling were born outside of the U.S., whether their parents are undocumented, and if so, or if no U.S. issued birth certificate is available, the student’s immigration status. It requires school districts to report the numbers, impact and costs related to students presumed to be undocumented to the state legislature. Although the district court failed to enjoin Alabama’s K-12 provisions, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals enjoined this section of the law, pending the appeal of the lower court’s decision. (More information about legal challenges to the Alabama law is available on our HICA v. Bentley and U.S. v. Alabama webpages.)

Measures restricting access to elementary or secondary school in Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia were defeated or did not move. Mounting an extensive mobilizing campaign, advocates in North Carolina were successful in removing the immigration status inquiries from that state’s K-12 bill. The modified bill, which requires parents enrolling students to present a birth certificate, with limited exceptions, became law on June 28.

By contrast, bills in at least two states, California and New Jersey, sought to reduce barriers to K-12 education. California’s bill, which requires school districts to accept a wide range of evidence indicating that a family lives in the district, was signed into law on October 3, 2011.

Overall, advocates and students made an impressive showing in moving proposals to improve access to higher education and K-12 this year, and, with a few notable exceptions, to defeat restrictive measures. The advocacy for new laws, and challenges to enacted laws and pending referendums will continue.

More information about bills affecting immigrants' access to education that were introduced or enacted in 2011 is available in this detailed table.


[1] The DREAM Act’s full name is the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act.

[2] See, e.g., Elise Keaton, Marija Weeden, Matt Sundeen & Jim Jacobs, The Tuition Equity Effect: Measuring the Impact of Providing In-State Tuition Rates for Colorado’s Undocumented High School Graduates (Center for Policy Entrepreneurship, Dec. 2008),; Antoniya Owens, In-State Tuition Rates and Immigrants (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Spring 2007),

[3] Martinez v. Regents of the University of California, 50 Cal.4th 1277 (Nov. 15, 2010).

[4] From this point forward, the names of states in which developments were positive for immigrant students will appear in bold green and the names of states in which developments were negative will appear in bold red.

[5] Maria Sacchetti, “Patrick Backs Illegal Immigrants on Tuition” Boston Globe, July 21, 2011,

[6] Deanna Bellandi, “Governor Signs Illinois Dream Act into Law,” Southtown Star, Aug. 1, 2011,

[7] “Governor Quinn Signs Illinois DREAM Act: Landmark Law Increases Higher Education Opportunities for Children of Immigrants,” Illinois Government News Network, Aug. 1, 2011,

[8] “Dear Colleague” letter from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, May 6, 2011,, at 1. See also Questions and Answers for School Districts and; Fact Sheet: Information on the Rights of All Children to Enroll in School,