On Feb. 1, University President Mary Sue Coleman finally broke her silence on the issue of tuition equality. As a coalition representing nearly 30 student organizations, we thank her for this. We’ve been asking for a public statement from Coleman for months so that we can finally start talking to each other, rather than past each other, about the issues at hand.
Unfortunately, the message she delivered was not one that we — or the 29,000 undocumented students in the state of Michigan — wanted to hear. Instead of embracing the moment and leading on the issue, she has come out and said, “Let’s wait and see.”
Undocumented students who want to join the class of 2017 don’t have time to wait. They’ve studied, worked incredibly hard and were accepted to the University, but cannot afford to pay the high out-of-state or international tuition rates. The average undocumented family has an annual income of around $25,000 and without a nine-digit social security number cannot receive federal or state financial aid. By denying them their right to in-state tuition, the University is effectively barring them from enrolling as a student. This is an act of deliberate discrimination by our University against every single undocumented student in the state of Michigan.
President Coleman said, “I am very encouraged with the discussion that is going on at the federal level because I don’t think this should be solved piecemeal.” Let’s translate that.
What she means is that she’s happy to wait for federal government to act rather than doing everything within her power to help the undocumented population in our state. The “discussion” happening at the federal level is far from progressive and likely will not pass before the end of the year if it passes at all, considering the high levels of partisanship in Washington. Further, the effect it will have on undocumented youth is hazy at best. The mysterious “piecemeal” change is tuition equality, which Coleman glosses over in favor of sexier immigration talking points.
She clearly does not understand the core issue at stake. She said, “I care deeply about the students who come here from other countries and get an advanced degree and have to go back.” The 29,000 undocumented students didn’t come here to get an advanced degree; they came here — often through no fault of their own — at young ages so that their families could be successful. None of them come to the state of Michigan simply to go to college.
Almost wistfully, she said, “I would love to have the same circumstances (as California) here, but we don’t.” She’s referring to the fact that the California legislature passed a bill legalizing tuition equality. What Coleman fails to mention is that the University is constitutionally autonomous, meaning that we have grounds to interpret federal law and act. In referencing California and advocating for “state provisions,” Coleman is clearly passing the buck and shirking responsibility away from her administration. The question then becomes not how we can act, but when.
When will you stand up to our creed as “the leaders and best?” When will you stand up and take the lead on this issue as you did for affirmative action? When will you demonstrate your support for undocumented students through actions rather than words alone?
The Latina/o Studies Program within the Department of American Culture recently wrote a letter to Coleman. They urged our University to lead on tuition equality: “Institutions of higher education throughout the U.S. have taken brave positions on this issue because they realize what is at stake: if immigrants are barred from real access to higher education they will undoubtedly become a permanent underclass.” If our University does not act soon, we will play a key role in the creation and subjugation of that underclass.
The shift in rhetoric around immigration at the federal and state level is promising and a sign for hope. But hope alone will not affect change. We have no idea how long it will be before the proposed changes are enacted or what those changes will mean for Michigan’s 29,000 undocumented students. What we do know is that we can act now. What we do know is that we can change our residency requirements — as 12 states have already done — to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. We must seize this opportunity.
John D’Adamo is an LSA junior. Yonah Lieberman and Luz Meza are LSA seniors. Daniel Morales is an LSA sophomore.