Tuesday, June 25, 2024

New law will allow some Mexican residents to pay in-state tuition at California community colleges

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SACRAMENTO — 

Agustin Guzman spends hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic and crosses an international border just to get to his college classes. But it’s worth it. Though he’s a resident of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, he pays the same tuition as a student four miles away from Laredo, Texas, thanks to a long-standing state law.

“At some point, I stopped believing I could go to college,” said Agustin, 24, a senior at Texas A&M International University. “But now, I tell people that I cross every day — that I do three hours on the bridge just to get a college education.”

Soon, some Mexican residents living across from California will have the same opportunity.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday signed Assembly Bill 91, which was inspired in part by a decades-old law in Texas that permits Mexican residents like Agustin to pay in-state tuition for their public education because they live so close to the border. The California law will permit low-income Mexican residents and citizens who live within 45 miles of the Mexico-California border to pay in-state tuition.

The bill permits 150 students at each of the eight partner colleges to be awarded this “nonresident fee exemption.”

“There are students who might actually be U.S. citizens but happen to be living in the Baja region because of the cost of living,” sponsor Assemblymember David Alvarez (D-Chula Vista) told The Times. “So there are some students who find themselves in that situation who don’t have a California residence because families can’t afford to live here.”

Alvarez sees the tuition program as a chance to strengthen California’s relationship with Mexico and to grow its workforce.

“It definitely is a surprise that California tends to lead on many issues but in this case, that’s not the case,” Alvarez said, mentioning that Texas has already graduated nearly 70,000 students over the course of decades, and he hopes California can be on the same trajectory. Eligible students must be residents of Mexico and demonstrate some level of financial need.

In California, the pilot program will last until July 2029. After a recent amendment to the bill, there are now eight eligible community colleges in the San Diego and Imperial Valley region that can admit up to 150 full-time students.

Also as part of the bill’s amendments, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, which oversees the public school system, must agree on a partner university in Baja California that will grant tuition breaks for any California resident wishing to attend their school.

Other tuition programs already exist in at least 24 states, including California, which have some form of “tuition equity” laws in place that allow Mexican citizens who have lived and attended school in the U.S., usually for at least three years, but remain undocumented, to pay in-state tuition.

Southern California and California-Baja are considered to be one “mega-region” with over 140,000 daily border crossings. It is also considered to be the “largest integrated economic zone” along the U.S.-Mexico border, bringing in nearly $70 billion in cross-border trade flows, according to a 2022 University of San Diego report.

Expanding affordable education for Mexican citizens has already been enacted in three other border states – New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas – that want these low-income students who cross the border every day to be given the same in-state tuition rates as U.S. residents.

“We want to make them feel that they really are a part of our community and I am hoping that it will bring in so much untapped potential that we see across the border,” said Chula Vista Councilwoman Andrea Cardenas, who was born in Tijuana and raised in San Diego County. “Because of the price of housing and inflation people are moving across the border but working over here.”

Under the new law, students would go from paying $307 to $46 a unit. That’s a difference of $1,380 compared to $10,380 a year, according to legislative analysis.

Sen. Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks) who voted against the bill, along with five other Republicans, told the Times that he agreed with the concept but opposed the bill for “fiscal reasons. “ He said that he questioned whether the bill would away resources from already-existing students.

Alvarez assured that resources wouldn’t be taken away from students because the law states that every college can appropriate funds each year based on how many students they choose to admit under the program.

This bill comes at a time when California community colleges are witnessing an all-time low in enrollment.

Jessica Robinson, president of Cuyamaca College in Rancho San Diego was skeptical about whether the bill will have any real impact on the enrollment problem at the state’s community colleges. Many blame the COVID-19 pandemic, but she argues that community colleges have been confronted with low enrollment for years.

“I’m not looking at this as a way to boost enrollment but to work with students who live bi-national, so incredibly close to our campuses and have not been able to take advantage of the opportunity,” Robinson said in a phone interview with the Times. This last year, she said Cuyamaca has actually seen a 13% spike in enrollment.

“Frankly for me, investing in our Latinx population is critical for reversing the challenging workforce shortage we have, not only in San Diego but in our state. The Latinx people are really integrative to the economy.”

Joshua Figueroa, a student at Imperial Valley College and advocate of the bill, said some students at his school found the bill unfair.

“One international student didn’t understand why someone living across the border could get tuition but not them,” he said. “In a sense, I did understand.”

But he continued, “We live so near to Mexico but not every student understands that. It’s literally the line preventing them from coming.”

Once they graduate, students have a choice: some are citizens or visa holders and could remain in the U.S. Some, who are non-citizens could apply to work through a visa program. Meanwhile, others may decide to move back home to Mexico.

For Agustin, Texas is his day home. But once he graduates he plans to return to Nuevo Laredo where he said he can always rely on a smile from his neighbor.

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