ATHENS, Ga. - As college students return to campus in Georgia, a new state policy has closed the doors of the five most competitive state schools to illegal immigrants, but a group of professors has found a way to offer those students a taste of what they've been denied.
The five University of Georgia professors have started a program they're calling Freedom University. They're offering to teach a rigorous seminar course once a week meant to mirror courses taught at the most competitive schools and aimed at students who have graduated from high school but can't go to one of those top schools because of the new policy.
"This is not a substitute for letting these students into UGA, Georgia State or the other schools," said Pam Voekel, a history professor at UGA and one of the program's initiators. "It is designed for people who, right now, don't have another option."
The policy, adopted last fall by the university system's Board of Regents, bars any state college or university that has rejected academically qualified applicants in the previous two years from admitting illegal immigrants. That includes five Georgia colleges and universities: the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Medical College of Georgia and Georgia College & State University. Illegal immigrants may still be admitted to any other state college or university, provided that they pay out-of-state tuition.
The new rule came in response to public concerns that Georgia state colleges and universities were being overrun by illegal immigrants, that taxpayers were subsidizing their education and legal residents were being displaced. A study conducted by the university system's Board of Regents last year found that less than 1 percent of the state's public college students were illegal immigrants, and that students who pay out-of-state tuition more than pay for their education.
"What we're hoping is that people in decision-making positions will reconsider the policy," said Reinaldo Roman, another of the organizing professors. "It goes counter to our aims. We have invested enormous resources in these young people. It makes sense to give them a chance at an education."
For now the course will simply serve to expose the students to a college environment and challenge them intellectually. It will not likely count for credit should the students be accepted at another school, but the professors said they're seeking accreditation so credits would be transferable at some point in the future.
The five founding professors all work for UGA, but they stress that the program has no connection to the institution. UGA referred a request for comment to the Board of Regents. Regents spokesman John Millsaps said faculty members are generally free to do whatever they want with their free time as long as it doesn't interfere with their responsibilities as employees of the university system. But he said he didn't know about enough about the program to comment on this specific case.
Once the professors hatched their plan - which was suggested by an illegal immigrant community member who works with a lot of illegal immigrant teens - they reached out to professors at prestigious schools nationwide to sit on a national board of advisers. One of them is Pulitzer Prize winning author and MIT professor Junot Diaz, who calls policies barring illegal immigrants from state schools cruel and divisive. He said he's ready to help Freedom University succeed.
"Whatever they ask of me. I'll do everything and anything I can," he wrote in an email. "This clearly is going to be a long fight."
With professors donating their time and a local Latino community outreach center offering a space for free, the program has few costs. They've started an Amazon.com wish list asking people to donate textbooks for students and gas cards for volunteers who will drive students to and from class.
Dressed in a black fleece jacket and tan cargo shorts and carrying a black backpack during a protest rally Tuesday at UGA against the policy, 25-year-old Karl Kings looked like he could be headed to class. However, Kings says he's an illegal immigrant who was brought to the U.S. when he was a year old from a country in Asia that he declined to identify.
"Pretty much, I would be a Georgia boy except I wasn't born here," he said. "I grew up here my whole life."
After graduating from high school in suburban Atlanta in 2004, he dreamed of going to college but couldn't afford to pay out-of-state tuition. He's gotten by doing odd jobs, but has had to turn down some more stable or challenging job offers because they required proof of eligibility to work in the U.S. He was filling out an application for Freedom University at the end of the rally this week.
The program is currently taking applications, with the first class, American Civilization I, set to start Sept. 8. The five professors will rotate teaching the seminar course on their own time at an off-campus location. All qualified applicants will likely be accepted unless there are so many applications that space constraints force them to limit admissions, said Lorgia Garcia Pena, another of the founding professors.
Leeidy Solis,16, was brought to the U.S. illegally by her parents from Mexico when she was 2. A high school senior in Athens, she wants to become a veterinarian. She finds it hard to listen to her friends discuss where they're applying to college because she's not sure she will be able to go. She's looking into where she might get a grant or scholarship to pay for her education.
Her parents are thinking of packing up and heading back to Mexico. They are encouraging her to apply to college there and go with them. But she doesn't remember Mexico and all her friends and cultural experiences are here, so she wants to stay. She said she's definitely keeping Freedom University in mind.
"Even if they don't count it as a credit, at least we as students can experience what it's like to take a real college class," she said