I’ve always viewed my university degree as a safe haven — a layover on the way to the real world in which I can discover what exactly I’ll do in that world. University should be a place in which you can discover and fulfill your dreams regardless of your legal status. The funding of university education is complex and never clear cut. Should it come from taxes, individuals or both? This combination of funding sources is different in every country.
But from my perspective as an Irish international student, the question of whether or not undocumented students should be granted access to in-state tuition fees is an easy one to answer. The fact that American university fees are so high in the first place prevents a vast tranche of the population from gaining a higher education. Making it more difficult for a further portion of the population — undocumented students — to attend university would be an extension of the claw of this already exclusive system. As a non-US resident, a legal alien if you will, I am unused to the idea that people who came to live in the U.S. before they were sixteen and have graduated from a California high school are not automatically eligible for legal U.S. residency. The California DREAM Act is a step towards lessening the consequences of living in the U.S. as an illegal immigrant. It provides a way for undocumented students to begin to change their legal status. Education is power.
As a citizen of the European Union, I receive a ‘free’ undergraduate university education at my home university, University College Cork in Ireland. Anyone who has lived in the E.U. for three of the five years preceding their application for college is eligible for this government funding. I say ‘free’ because all students pay a €2,000 registration fee — a fee that has increased dramatically in the last number of years as the iron hand of recession clasped around the Irish and the world economy. As the registration fee rose, protests broke out in universities around the country, culminating in the national USI (Union of Students Ireland) march on Nov. 3 of last year.
I didn’t join in.
Marching against a state that grants access to university to everyone, providing relief grants to those who cannot afford the registration fee or living costs of attending college? Marching against a country in economic crisis and desperately trying to stay afloat? Compared to American university fees, €2,000 seems like a pittance. Even though UC Berkeley is a public university, California residents still pay upwards of $13,000 a year for fees and tuition — considered a cheap deal compared to the vastly higher fees paid by those attending private universities.
But “public” should mean “accessible to all.” While there are scholarships and grants available, $13,000 is no small sum for many families ineligible for these benefits, and the non-resident tuition rate of about $46,000 a year is even more restricting.
However, it is a fact that American universities are some of the best in the world. If students didn’t pay any fees, maintaining excellence in teaching and research in the university would become much more difficult. The difficult question is where to strike the balance between providing student aid and maintaining education standards. The illegal status of undocumented students increases the number of people paying non-resident tuition fees — is this a fair or just way to increase university funding? University should not and can never be entirely free of fees, but it should not be off-limits to those who can most benefit from the opportunities it affords them.