Skyline High School senior Javier Contreras has wanted to be a Wolverine ever since he can remember. After emigrating with his parents from Mexico at the age of four, he’s been working hard to achieve what many people come to the United States hoping to find: a better life. Fourteen years later, the next step in achieving that goal is being threatened because Contreras has had to make tuition equality for many undocumented immigrants a major factor in choosing a college.
“It’s frustrating because I’ve worked really hard and people don’t understand why this isn’t an option for me,” Contreras said at a Coalition for Tuition Equality rally Monday in front of the Fleming Administration Building. “If I got into Michigan right now, I couldn’t afford it, especially because I can only apply for private scholarships and there aren’t many of those.”
The University faces a complicated legal path to authorizing tuition equality — facing a number of legal hurdles and complications that could derail the process or drag the University into costly lawsuits. However, Contreras said he “would do whatever it took” to make his dream a reality if policy was changed.
Contreras applied to the University and is also considering Western Michigan University and Washtenaw Community College because they charge in-state rates for undocumented Michigan residents. He now has some documentation, but won’t be able to work or get in-state tuition rates until he has a green card or becomes a citizen, something he doesn’t foresee happening.
“I have a good feeling something will change, whether it be really big or small, but we’ve been talking about reform for so long, so I’ll kind of believe it when I see it,” he said. “There have been times when I feel like all the work I’ve been doing isn’t really worth it, but as long as there’s a small chance of reform, you have to be optimistic and just hope for the best.”
Contreras’ story was part of a number of conversations on tuition equality and access to the University that took place on Monday.
About 60 students from different CTE member organizations on campus gathered in front of the Fleming Administration Building on Monday, presenting letters and making speeches to show their support for tuition equality.
LSA senior Luz Meza stood out in the rain for over an hour, sharing her experience with immigration issues.
“I’ve been very lucky and worked very hard to get into Michigan and everyone should have that same opportunity, “ she said.
Meza has been involved with several minority-rights groups on campus since her freshman year, and has been motivated by both her peers and her past to continue advocating.
She feels that their voices were heard and is “optimistic” that the administration will respond favorably.
“I really trust that our administration really has a heart and they care about this as much as I do,” Meza said. “I think that deep inside, Mary Sue Coleman and the regents do believe that we do want these students here, and we do want to give them that opportunity.”
Meza said “politics” are preventing tuition equality from taking effect, but believes advocacy will lead to change.
“We have to continue to be strong and show everyone that we can’t be swept under the rug,” Meza said. “No matter what happens, we won’t stop until everyone has the opportunities they deserve.”
Across campus at Palmer Commons, Martha Pollack, the University’s vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs, spoke before the Senate Assembly to discuss the measures the University was taking to address rising tuition costs. Her remarks were a preview of the presentation she will give before the University’s Board of Regents on Thursday.
At the Senate Assembly meeting, Pollack said it was important that the University remain accessible to students from all socioeconomic classes and not simply cater to “rich” students, adding that she was concerned about the lack of socioeconomic diversity among out-of-state students.
“We need to teach everyone,” Pollack said. “It is our job to not limit ourselves to a certain class of students.”
Pollack added that tuition at the University has increased by an average of 5.9 percent per year, making a degree seem unaffordable to students of lower socioeconomic statuses despite a combination of grants and scholarships that attempt to meet full financial need of disadvantaged students.
“That is big. That is way too big,” Pollack said of the average tuition hike.
This rise is the result of declining state appropriations, a growing University budget and increasing investments in financial aid. State funding for students has fallen by 50 percent in the last decade and appropriations are at the same level as 1964 when adjusted for inflation.
But Pollack said the University is “incredibly invested” in taking measures to combat the rising costs of tuition. These measures include aggressive cost controls, a freeze on in-state tuition, targeted philanthropic priorities and the development of alternative revenue streams.
These efforts at cost containment have reduced annual costs by $235 million and Pollack hopes to find another $120 million in annual cost reductions.
“We have tried really hard to make sure the efficiencies are on the operations side so we can protect the core mission of the University,” she said. “We have to continue to provide an uncommon education … but at the same time, we have to work at affordability without harming the excellence at this University.”
Nearly 70 percent of University students receive some form of financial aid, with $190 million of aid being awarded from the University in the 2011 to 2012 academic year.