The Magazine

Defending the Defensible

Texas’s college tuition policy is not the abomination Mitt Romney claims.

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Texas also has a history of going its own way with regard to immigration and Mexico. For instance, in 1942 the United States began the “Bracero Program,” which allowed Mexican contract workers to come, on a temporary basis, to the United States to help with the wartime labor shortage. Texas opted out of the program​—​not because they objected to Mexican guest workers, but because they wanted their border with Mexico to be completely open, in order to facilitate migration. So even though Texas is home to 14 percent of the illegal aliens in America, both Democrats and Republicans there have a different historical perspective on border issues from people in other states.

All of which made the bill an easy sell. Shortly after Perry signed his in-state tuition law, California passed a similar measure. And since then, 11 other states have done the same. Some of these states are liberal bulwarks with large illegal populations (New York, which has 7 percent of the country’s illegal population) and some are deeply conservative states with a very small proportion of illegals (Nebraska, which has 0.5 percent).

To hear Mitt Romney tell it, you’d think the University of Texas at Austin was overrun with the children of illegals, taking slots and taxpayer money from smart kids in New Jersey who’ve dreamt about being Longhorns their whole lives​—​and would have gone to UT if only they could have afforded the out-of-state rate. But the reality is very different. It turns out that of the 1.8 million students enrolled in Texas higher-ed, only 16,476 students are illegals (the state refers to these kids as “affidavit students”). Of those, 12,028 go to two-year community colleges. For the most part these schools have noncompetitive admissions and hardly any out-of-state students. A vanishingly small number go to the state’s competitive flagship schools: The University of Texas has 612 of them; A&M has 362. Romney’s fretting about a “$100,000 discount” being given to illegal immigrants is something like an argument for abortion rights centered around rape and incest.

Mind you, if the people of Texas decided to use their tax dollars to subsidize kids who grew up illegally in Texas rather than kids who grew up legally in New Jersey, that’s their right. After all, it’s their money and the entire raison d’être for in-state tuition is to discriminate in favor of one group and against others.

The real question​—​the one we would be asking if we weren’t in the middle of a primary fight​—​is whether this decision by the people of Texas has had good outcomes, for either the intended beneficiaries or the state. And on that score, the evidence is mixed.

The underlying economic assumptions behind the in-state tuition scheme for illegals are the following: (1) College coursework adds value in the labor market; (2) illegals can be lured into college coursework by financial discounts; and (3) since the marginal benefit to the school of in-state versus out-of-state tuition is relatively small, the state will reap benefits by having better-educated illegal immigrants​—​because these people will earn more and inevitably pay more in the consumption taxes that drive the Texas tax base.

A few studies have been done on the subject; their conclusions vary. The first was undertaken by Columbia’s Neeraj Kaushal in 2008. Looking at enrollments of illegal immigrants at state schools before and after the tuition law passed, Kaushal calculated that the subsidy had a noticeable effect​—​that for every $6,900 in difference between the in-state and out-of-state rates, undocumented Mexican enrollment increased by 2.8 percent. Further, she found that the lure of in-state tuition actually helped keep undocumented teenagers from dropping out of high school.

However, Kaushal’s tidy equations don’t inspire an overwhelming degree of confidence. For one thing, while the outputs of her models are deceptively precise, the inputs are not. Always remember that data on the universe of illegal aliens is like smoke. We have good educated guesses about how many illegals are here, what ages they are, and how long they’ve been here. But this isn’t the Census: These are guesses, and the numbers are always shifting. The greater concern about Kaushal’s study was that it didn’t take into account larger trends. In other words, could the rising number of illegals at college be the result of a bigger pool of college-eligible illegals, rising income amongst them, etc.?

In 2010, two researchers at the University of Houston, Aimee Chin and Chinhui Juhn, tried to dig deeper. They didn’t compare straight before-and-after outcomes. Instead, they used a difference-in-differences-type regression, looking at the change in illegal students over time in states which passed in-state tuition laws, compared with the changes over time in states that passed similar laws later (or not at all).

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