LITTLE ROCK — A state lawmaker who has tried unsuccessfully in past legislative sessions to gain in-state college tuition for undocumented students is making another run with the legislation this year.
Senate Bill 915, filed Monday by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, would make anyone who attends high school in Arkansas for at least three years and graduates or receives a general education diploma eligible to pay the in-state tuition rate at a state higher education institution.
The bill would require a student without documentation of immigration status to file an affidavit with the school stating that he or she intends to gain legal status.
Elliott said Monday that SB 915 is about education, not immigration.
“We have the authority to decide, educationally, who gets into our colleges and universities at in-state tuition,” she said.
In 2005, with then-Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee’s support, a similar measure sponsored by Elliott when she was a state representative passed the House but narrowly failed in the Senate. Four years later, another attempt failed after Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, said the measure could violate federal law.
Both times, the measures were voted down despite overwhelming Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. SB 915 could face an even tougher challenge this year with Republicans controlling both chambers, although it does have a measure of GOP support. Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, is a co-sponsor after opposing the measure in 2009.
“I struggled with it four years ago … it was tough vote then,” Key said Monday. “In intervening years I’ve realized I was wrong in my opinion on that narrow issue on tuition.”
Key said some Arkansas colleges and universities already offer in-state tuition to students from neighboring states. He said that benefit should be extended to all students who graduate high school in Arkansas.
“It doesn’t make sense that we’re going to hold a kid that has graduated from an Arkansas high school, gone to school with Arkansas kids, to some different standard based on something they had no control over,” he said.
Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, author of a failed 2009 bill that sought to prohibit undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition, said it was “a little bit of a surprise to me” that Key would co-sponsor Elliott’s bill.
“My position stays the same,” Harris said.
But several Republican legislators said they were willing to consider the idea.
“We’ve already spent 120-odd-thousand dollars getting their K-12 education provided to them, and we need to make sure we recover that investment,” said Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena. “So I want to see the details on it and see what we’ve got. I’m not sure at this point.”
About 12 percent of the more than 156,000 students attending state-supported colleges and universities last year paid out-of-state tuition, at about twice the cost of in-state tuition, according to Brandi Hinkle, spokeswoman for the state Department of Higher Education.