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Maryland’s DREAM Act a Catalyst for Education Equality

December 5, 2012

Dan Lehrman

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With the recent passage of the DREAM Act, Maryland joins the rapidly growing movement towards education equality. Due in part to the efforts of DREAMers and advocacy groups, who worked tirelessly on the proposition, election results revealed widespread public support for the bill. A majority of Maryland voters called for the passage of a measure that would allow students without legal documentation to receive in-county tuition at Maryland community colleges and in-state rates at public universities. To receive these tuition rates, students must complete at least three years at a Maryland high school and file Maryland taxes from high school to college.

By providing undocumented students with an opportunity to achieve their higher education dreams, the Maryland DREAM Act addresses statewide achievement gaps and reduces higher student dropout rates among immigrant students. Currently, it is difficult for committed and responsible undocumented students not eligible for state or federal financial aid to afford out-of-state tuition to public universities. Consequently, only 5-10 percent of undocumented high school graduates in the nation will go on to college, as the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research suggests. In fact, the Immigration Policy Center reports that each year about “65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school, many at the top of their class, but cannot go to college, join the military, work, or otherwise pursue their dreams”.

With career aspirations stifled and access to an affordable higher education denied, many immigrant students lack strong incentives to remain in school until graduation. Lacking state or federal aid, combined with the high cost of out-of-state tuition, many intelligent undocumented students simply cannot afford a higher degree. Therefore, it comes at little surprise that the Pew Hispanic Center found that, in 2011, adult undocumented immigrants were disproportionately more likely to be poorly educated: 47 percent of immigrants ages 25-64 obtained less than a high school education versus only 8 percent for U.S.-born residents in the same age group. This disparity translates into is a growing population of poorly educated adult undocumented immigrants, who are either unemployed or limited to lower paying jobs.

The importance of addressing the issue of education inequality within the undocumented population is especially important for the country’s economic vitality. Some reports argue that immigrants and their children will account for the entire growth of the U.S. labor force between 2010 and 2030. Much of this population will hit a metaphoric academic and vocational “glass ceiling” if dropout rates, achievement gap figures, and numbers of students without a university degree continue. To make sure that members of this group have viable economic opportunities, policymakers must end educational practices that obstruct their access to higher education. With the passage of the DREAM Act in Maryland, immigrant students throughout the state can now attend higher education institutions and become equally qualified for careers in a competitive job market.

While this is the first time a popular vote has led to the passage of a version of the DREAM Act, close to a dozen other states have laws or policies supporting principles of the DREAM Act. Maryland joins California, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin in providing undocumented students with the opportunity to receive in-state tuition. These states echo the bipartisan public support for education equality that was cut short after the failure of Congress’ DREAM Act. Nine other states (Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Oregon, and Rhode Island) considered similar legislation. Although some measures this year have fallen short, such as in the Colorado state Senate, the outcome in Maryland has renewed advocates’ confidence that the DREAM Act’s legislative momentum will continue into next year.

Efforts to promote education equality for undocumented workers, however, do no begin and end with policymakers. Organizations and thousands of supporters have made their voices heard in the cause of providing in-state tuition for undocumented students. Members of Congress have faced increasing pressure through letters writing campaigns, rallies, hunger strikes, and other activities from DREAM Act activists.

With the education of over a million undocumented students on the line, education equality advocates push harder in both state and national campaigns in the hopes that Maryland’s legislation will act as another catalyst for public support and greater change in addressing the educational issues surrounding undocumented students in Maryland and around the nation.

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