Opening doors

Letting students who are illegal immigrants attend community colleges is a good move for North Carolina.

September 22, 2009 

The state's community colleges are changing for the better, to give more students a chance.

You might think such a move would be easy and popular, but it wasn't easy and this particular change may not be widely supported, at least right away. Opposition to admitting illegal immigrants to community colleges has become a flashpoint issue in North Carolina, and Republican officials, joined by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue and Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, immediately criticized the 18-member State Board of Community Colleges for its near-unanimous decision. (Dalton, who has a seat on the board, was the lone "no" vote.)

Here's hoping, however, that the logic of the board's action and its carefully crafted nature will cool the most overheated of the opposition. North Carolinians are fair-minded people, and the decision the community college board has taken is fair to all. If anything, it is tougher on the young people involved than are the policies of most states.

Board members voted Friday to admit illegal immigrants who have graduated from high school in this country only if they pay out-of-state tuition rates. Furthermore, the new students will be enrolled in classes only after all legal residents get seats. So they won't be getting a "free ride" -- not by a long shot -- and they won't be depriving other students of a place.

All they'll be getting is a chance to better themselves.

This policy change clarifies years of confusion over what the community college system's policies should be for students who graduate from high school here and then want to go on to learn the job skills that community colleges offer. The change will end a ban on illegal immigrants' admissions that was imposed last year, when anti-illegal immigrant sentiment overflowed nationwide and, in particular, in North Carolina, which had experienced an exceptional surge in such immigrants during the boom years of the past two decades.

Taking the opposition's arguments into account, the move is structured so it will not harm any legal North Carolina residents. By imposing high, out-of-state tuition rates, about $7,700 per year, the board assures that relatively few illegal immigrants will be able to take advantage of the courses being offered. The system determined, contrary to critics' charges, that out-of-state tuition more than compensates it for the cost of instruction -- does anyone seriously propose charging students more than that?

Among the states, only South Carolina bars illegal immigrants entirely from its two-year colleges. Are we really to take our cue from South Carolina rather than the other 48 states? The question answers itself.

What's really at issue here is clearing out an illogical roadblock between high school -- yes, youths who are in this country illegally are entitled to attend the public schools -- and higher education (the UNC system, for example, admits such students). When it comes to the two-year colleges in-between, nearly every state has opted to offer a chance for betterment to young people who typically had no say in their parents' decision to bring them here. In making this modest but good-hearted change, North Carolina is joining the rest of the nation, as well it should.

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