After four years of not allowing undocumented students to enroll, University of Tennessee system admission officers are going to revisit the issue.
Admission representatives from the three UT system campuses -- Chattanooga, Knoxville and Martin -- will bring up the topic during their annual fall meeting in October, discussing whether there's any need or desire to move forward.
"It's one of the items on the agenda, just to talk about it as admission officers, it's not the board of trustees having a conversation," said Yancey Freeman, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment services at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
He estimated that UTC had less than 20 undocumented students when it changed its practice in 2007 and those students were allowed to complete their degree.
Until 2007, students illegally in the country had the option of going to Chattanooga State Community College or UTC -- as long as they paid out-of-state tuition, which can be three times higher than in-state. But that changed when the three undergraduate institutions of the University System of Tennessee agreed to stop the practice.
The Tennessee Board of Regents -- which manages 13 community colleges, 27 technology centers and six universities, including the University of Memphis, Middle Tennessee State and Austin Peay -- doesn't have a policy on the issue, said Wendy Thompson, vice chancellor for access and diversity for the board of Regents.
States with in-state tuition laws for undocumented students:
Source: National Conference of State legislatures
States that ban in-state tuition for undocumented students
Source: National Conference of State legislatures
"None of our schools at this point are at capacity and making determinations based on space," she said, "so we do admit undocumented students."
Tennessee and Georgia lawmakers continue to introduce bills to address the issue, but so far undocumented students are not banned from attending public higher education institutions. Instead, the decision is left up to each school or system.
Freeman said UTC agreed to change its practice with the other two universities to avoid confusion among families seeking to enroll in one of the state's universities, but he is not aware of any additional costs or work for the university as a result of admitting undocumented students.
University of Tennessee system President Joe DiPietro said last week the system wanted to comply with state laws about who it admits. Currently there are no state or federal laws prohibiting the admission of undocumented students in the state's colleges and universities.
"The issues involved are complex. We are always considering ways to improve our system, but there are no current plans to change our practice," he said in an email.
Gina Stafford, the system's spokeswoman, said UT has not taken an official position on admitting undocumented students. The 2007 decision was simply an agreement between three schools, not a system-wide mandate.
But she added, "If a person's presence in this country is not legal, then it would make no sense to admit that person to college."
About 96 percent of student applicants in the UT system file for federal financial aid, which requires a Social Security number, Stafford wrote in an e-mail. Many undocumented students don't have a Social Security number.
"Of the remainder, applications are reviewed and any application by a student who does not answer citizenship questions is not considered for admission," she said. "The university will not knowingly process or admit any undocumented students."
Having a higher percentage of people in college, regardless of their legal status, can only be beneficial, said Mike Feely, a community leader who has worked with the Hispanic community, especially its youth, for more than a decade.
"It's critically important that folks have access to education for the sake of education if nothing else," he said.
In the 2011 legislative sessions, Tennessee and Georgia were among 13 states that introduced bills to ban undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition or from enrolling at public institutions. Neither Georgia nor Tennessee passed their bills.
Sources: University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Tennessee Board of Regents and Dalton State College
In 2008, Georgia passed a bill that prohibits undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition. Dalton State College used to offer tuition waivers to undocumented students who met certain grade point average and ACT score requirements.
Last year, the state went even further. Georgia's State Board of Regents passed new rules denying admission to undocumented students at state schools that don't admit all academically qualified applicants such as Georgia Tech and Georgia State University.
But the changes have not had a significant effect on Dalton State, said Jodi Johnson, vice president for enrollment and student services. The college has 36 students considered out-of-state, but she doesn't know how many are not legally in the country.
Out of 310,000 students in all of the state's colleges, 501 -- of 1 percent -- were found to be undocumented last year, according to the board of regents, and 30 of those were from Dalton State.
Thompson, from the Tennessee Board of Regents estimated that, out of more than 200,000 students enrolled in the system, less than 500 are undocumented across the state. Undocumented students don't qualify for in-state tuition or for any federal financial aid, she said, which may prevent undocumented students from applying.