Back in control of both chambers of the legislature, Colorado Democrats plan to push a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to attend public colleges and universities at the in-state rate of tuition.
The move comes after two years of failed attempts to pass a compromise bill permitting undocumented immigrants to pay tuition lower than out-of-state rates but higher than in-state rates.
"What we're looking at is a simpler, more equitable approach to tuition," said state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, one of the lawmakers leading the effort. Johnston and state Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, are holding a news conference Tuesday with supporters of the bill.
For years, supporters tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill that would allow Colorado high school graduates who are illegal immigrants to attend public colleges and universities at the in-state tuition rate. But in 2011, they changed their approach when Republicans gained control of the state House. Advocates pushed a bill that would have allowed such students to attend college at a so-called "unsubsidized" rate.
The difference was in something called the College Opportunity Fund scholarship, which is a subsidy given to all Colorado students who get the in-state rate. The subsidy, which is $1,116 for a student taking 18 credit hours, works as a sort of voucher, going with every student to their college of choice, and was created as a legal workaround so the state could increase funding to colleges without it counting against revenue limits under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.
Under current tuition rates, an in-state student in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder taking 18 credit hours pays $5,144 per semester. With the College Opportunity Fund scholarship added in, that rate falls to $4,028.
An out-of-state student, meanwhile, pays $14,976 in the same example.
But even legislation that barred undocumented immigrants from getting the College Opportunity Fund narrowly failed in the last two legislative sessions, despite garnering some Republican support.
This session, Democrats hold a 37-28 majority in the House and a 20-15 majority in the Senate.
Johnston, though, said the issue was that "it just makes more sense to offer students the same tuition rate." He said the approach of taking out the College Opportunity Fund was something pushed by undocumented immigrant students to appease Republicans but which ended up being confusing to most people.
"Every other state that has done this doesn't have the three-part system that Colorado does," he said, referring to in-state and out-of-state tuition rates as well as the College Opportunity Fund subsidy.
Johnston said he expected even more bipartisan support from Republicans this year.
But that wasn't the sentiment from House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, who said Republicans favored "comprehensive immigration reform" over legislation like this.
"They (illegal immigrants) can't get a job," Waller said. "I think it gives false hope. It's just another attempt for Democrats to make government all things for all people."
State Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, said bills crafted the last two years — which excluded the College Opportunity Fund subsidy — were sold as a way to help students without violating federal law, which bars states from giving college benefits to undocumented immigrants that are not available to U.S. citizens. But now, Renfroe said, that argument appears to have been completely forgotten.
"I think people who've come to this country legally and are paying out-of-state tuition as foreign students will be hurt by this," Renfroe said.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, in his State of the State address last week called for making college more affordable for undocumented immigrants.
"The governor made clear he supports a legislative solution but has not yet reviewed the language of this bill, which is different from the bill he endorsed last year," spokesman Eric Brown said.
Metro State University President Stephen Jordan, whose college supports allowing undocumented students to attend at the in-state rate, cheered the proposal this year.
"We want to see as broad an access across all Colorado institutions as possible," Jordan said. "By having the (College Opportunity Fund) in there, it will help to achieve that."