NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A bill that would let immigrant students who are in the country illegally pay in-state college tuition advanced in the Tennessee Legislature on Wednesday.
The Tuition Opportunity Bill passed by a 7-to-2 vote in the Senate Education Committee.
Dozens of students who are living in the country illegally were at the committee meeting. The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition has been pushing lawmakers for several years to pass the measure, but it has failed to get enough support to pass into law.
"We applaud the members of the committee who voted to expand access to in-state tuition to undocumented graduates," Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director of TIRRC, said in a statement. She said she hoped it would make it through more committees so students could pay in-state tuition this fall.
Elman Gonzales of Sevierville said he could go back to school if the bill becomes law.
The 19-year-old, who graduated from Sevier County High School, was brought to Tennessee at age 2 when his parents moved here from Honduras.
He was forced to drop out of school at East Tennessee State University because tuition was $12,000 per semester — about three times the cost of in-state tuition. Gonzales was pursuing a nursing degree but said he really wants to be a doctor.
"I'm hoping that there has been a lot of change of heart from those senators and representatives and hopefully by sharing student stories they can come to realize that this bill can change the lives of thousands of students across Tennessee," Gonzales said.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga who sponsored the bill, said the state has already invested in the students by paying for their K-12 education.
Under current law, immigrant students who are in the country without documentation must pay out-of-state tuition because they are not considered legal residents.
"We've already made the investments, but when they graduate from hIgh school —no matter how long they've lived in Tennessee — they have to pay more than three times as much as their classmates that go to public schools and universities," Gardenhire said.
He also said that the measure would be good for the economy by helping more Tennesseans get degrees.
The bill would let the governing boards of the state's colleges and universities decide whether to allow the students to pay in-state tuition.
If the measure passes, the students who are in the country illegally still wouldn't qualify for federal financial aid. They also would not be eligible for Tennessee's programs that offer students free tuition at community colleges and technical students, said Ginger Hausser, director of external affairs for the Tennessee Board of Regents.