Higher ed for undocumented kids pays off for us all

The News TribuneFebruary 10, 2014 

You know you’ve won the argument when the main thing left to dispute is who gets the credit. That’s where the fight over financial aid for undocumented college students stands.

The Republican-controlled Senate last week approved need grants — Washington’s chief form of college assistance — for students living in the state illegally. The Democratic House had already approved an almost identical measure, called the DREAM Act.

Some Democrats are irked, seeing the Republicans as horning in on what was supposed to be a Democratic cause. But the important cause here is the students, not partisan politics. The best thing that could happen for these students is to have both major parties in their corner.

Fundamentally, this is a good bill for the state.

Its advocates tended to appeal social justice, equality and other worthy principles. Its opponents asked — quite reasonably — why the Legislature should expand the pool of eligible students when it was already denying grants to roughly 30,000 legal Washington residents.

Senate Republicans answered that question rather convincingly by adding $5 million to the need grant fund, which should be more than enough to cover the 1,000 or so undocumented students likely to take advantage of the program. (They’ll have to wait in line for the aid like everyone else.)

The merits of this bill don’t hang on liberal rhetoric. The logic behind it is the same pragmatic logic that underlies public education in general. We pay for it not just because we want individuals to have a bright future, but because it’s good for the rest of us, too.

By and large, the immigrants affected by this legislation were smuggled into this country as children by their parents; they had no say in the matter.

To qualify for need grants, they’ll have to clear a host of restrictions, including entering the country before age 16 and having no significant criminal record.

They must also have earned a high school diploma in Washington and have lived in this state for at least three years prior to that. These kids are thoroughly American and thoroughly Washingtonian.

Need grants will be a good deal for them. But need grants in general — for native and undocumented students alike — are a good deal for society.

Middle-schoolers or high-schoolers who see higher education as a genuine, affordable option are much less likely to drop out. As a group, dropouts are exceedingly expensive; they place a heavy burden on public assistance and the criminal justice system.

But high school grads who go on to college or vocational training are much more likely to create stable families, pay taxes, stay out of trouble and become an assets to the economy.

Financial aid for needy Washington students is an investment in the state’s future. Everyone wins when students can reach their career potentials — whether or not their papers are in order.

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