Viewpoint: Access and inclusion

BY KEVIN MERSOL-BARG AND MARISOL RAMOS

Published July 17, 2013

The University has a long and proud history of promoting social justice. Thursday, the University’s Board of Regents can pen the next chapter in this storied history by passing tuition equality.

Moreover, the University has a compelling opportunity to establish a policy that will benefit the lives of undocumented youth. Access to in-state tuition for undocumented students is more than sensible education policy — it’s a good first step toward fulfilling one of the most pressing needs of today: equitable access to higher education.

We commend the University for considering a new residency policy that would broaden access to higher education for undocumented students — however, to ensure an equitable experience for these students, the University must commit itself to advancing a comprehensive approach to meeting the needs of this population.

Our work at the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good — a policy and research institute based in the University’s School of Education — has demonstrated that increasing opportunities to higher education for all capable students fosters greater civic engagement and more diverse democratic participation. Of the estimated two million undocumented youth in the country, 29,000 reside in Michigan. An estimated five to ten percent of them pursue higher education. To address the persistent college enrollment gap between documented and undocumented students, nearly 20 states have enacted inclusive in-state tuition and financial aid policies. However, research indicates that undocumented students continue to face additional barriers to completing college because they lack access to academic and support services and struggle to cover the cost of attendance.

In short, the University must commit itself to supporting undocumented students for the long haul. This commitment will require the University to take three more important steps — provide further support to undocumented students that ensures their successful completion of a college degree, encourage other institutions of higher education to follow the University’s lead and reach out to communities that are most affected by undocumented student issues.

First, the University must create an equitable college experience for undocumented students, which will require much greater support than it currently provides. In terms of financial access, the University can complement the strides made by tuition equality with institutional aid. In its upcoming capital campaign, the University intends to raise billions of dollars, with a focus on financial aid. This provides a timely opportunity to establish an undocumented student-specific scholarship fund through the campaign. In the absence of federal financial aid, institutional aid will likely make the difference in the ability of many undocumented students to afford a University education. The University must also provide holistic academic support services for undocumented students. The University of California-Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program provides a promising example for our University to emulate.

Second, the University must recognize the rights of residency for undocumented students from this state and thereby set a standard for its peer institutions. In doing so, the University may encourage institutions nationally to align their own policies and practices more closely with the values of inclusion and educational opportunity that are essential in promoting the broader values of a democratic society.

Third, the University must sustain a public commitment to access for undocumented students. This commitment will further encourage Michigan’s top students to attend the University. In Michigan communities — particularly ones with substantial undocumented populations — the University stands to tap into potential that would otherwise go to waste. Too often, undocumented students realize their status and decide against pursuing a University education because of the steep cost of attendance. Inclusive policies would give hope to students who would otherwise give up on pursuing a higher education — let alone a University degree — during or before high school. If the University wants to admit increasingly larger cohorts of undocumented students, it needs to ensure these students — who would otherwise excel at the University if prepared — know that the University is a realistic option earlier in their K-12 schooling.

We encourage the University’s Board of Regents to uphold equal opportunity for all students from Michigan by passing tuition equality. We call on those who share our view to express their support for tuition equality and other inclusive policies to the University administration and Board of Regents. Thursday’s vote represents a historic opportunity to affirm this University’s commitment to access and inclusion for the residents of this state. It is also simply the right thing to do.

Kevin Mersol-Barg and Marisol Ramos are graduates of the Class of 2013.