The Corner

Perry and the Illegals

I’ll have something to say about “binational health insurance” in a bit, but first, college tuition: Under a Supreme Court mandate (Plyler vs. Doe), Texas and every other state is obliged to provide K-12 education for illegal immigrants. What Texas has decided, under Rick Perry, is to treat Texas high-school graduates like Texas high-school graduates for the purposes of calculating college tuition, including those who were brought here illegally by their parents, with a couple of provisos: They have to have been in school in Texas for three years prior to graduating from a Texas high school, and they have to be on their way to becoming legal permanent residents of the United States. About 1 percent of Texas’s college students fit the bill.

I’m mostly agnostic on in-state tuition. On the one hand, you want to draw a bright line in the sand regarding illegal immigration; on the other hand, it’s hard to blame the kids for their parents’ wrongdoing, and the fact is that they’re here — some have spent practically their whole lives here — and we have to decide what to do with them. (I was once an illegal immigrant myself, so maybe I’m biased by experience.) In either case, it seems to me a pretty small thing compared to the robust border-security measures that are needed.

Deciding what kind of tuition to charge illegal immigrants who have graduated from high school and who meet the criteria for university admission is a very nice, rich-nation problem to have. (Seriously, you’re pretty well-off when your “problems” include college students.) That being said, in Texas the relevant question isn’t what we charge illegals for tuition, but whether we admit them to state universities at all. That’s because tuition in Texas is modest, even at the flagship universities, covering something on the order of one-fourth of the cost of operating the schools. Tuition and direct state funding together amount to about half, and then there’s the Permanent University Fund: Early in the 20th century, the state of Texas gave the universities a whole bunch of land, which turned out to have a whole bunch of oil on it, and West Texas is full of wells bobbing up and down and pumping grade-A education out of the ground. That, too, helps keep the professors in tweed.

The University of Texas System and the Texas A&M System like having that tuition cash flow — and rely on it, to be sure — but they really use tuition as an expedient tool of enrollment control. It is politically difficult to raise admission standards at public universities, but they can only take so many students. Once you’ve decided to admit an illegal on any terms, you’ve decided not to admit somebody else: The number of university seats is limited, and that is a more binding constraint than raw dollars, of which there are many billions in the Permanent University Fund.

I wonder how many of those lambasting Texas for its tuition practices would support banning illegals from the universities full stop — especially after the state has had to pay for a K-12 education for them? And, if so, why stop at illegals? The University of Texas, my alma mater, is home to a very large number of non-U.S. students (here legally), a tenth of the student body or more, and Texas’s main concern for many years has been keeping those overseas students in Texas post-graduation: Dell and Freescale Semiconductor and Whole Foods have the help-wanted sign out most of the time. Likewise, if you have a student who has graduated from a Texas high school and who has lived for years in Texas, who isn’t going back to Mexico any time soon, and who qualifies for admission to a Texas university — it is not obvious to me that the most intelligent course of action is to make it more difficult for that student to go to college, rather than less.

If you want to neutralize the magnet that draws illegals to the United States, I think you’d be better off putting handcuffs on a half a dozen Tyson Foods plant managers than worrying about what the Aggies charge their undergrads. That’s my theory, anyway. 

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