The Minnesota Senate passed a DFL-sponsored bill that would give students living illegally in the state access to taxpayer-funded financial aid, in-state tuition prices and certain private scholarships.
Backers say the bill -- known informally as the "Minnesota Dream Act" or "Prosperity Act" -- would bring a college education to hundreds of immigrant students who normally couldn't afford one.
The bill passed 41-23 after a debate over how the state should spend its resources -- and whether immigration is an issue best left to the federal government.
But the bill's chief author, Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said the students deserve equal access to a college education in Minnesota.
"These are Minnesota students, too," she said. "They've grown up in Minnesota. They want to be Americans. They want to be productive members of our state. And we should treat them the same as we treat anyone else growing up in Minnesota and goes to a Minnesota high school."
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Students are not legally barred from studying in Minnesota. They also pay the same flat-rate tuition charged by a majority of state colleges and universities. But they must pay higher nonresident tuition on some campuses, such as the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. And they do not have access to financial aid -- state or federal.
The bill would give them access to resident tuition and state financial aid by essentially changing the legal definition of a resident student for purposes of tuition and financial aid.
To be considered a resident student, immigrants would have to graduate from a Minnesota high school after attending at least three years. They would have to comply with selective service requirements and prove that they have applied with the federal government for legal immigration status.
According to the legislative fiscal note, about 750 students would qualify for instate tuition under the bill. About half of those would qualify for the State Grant, Minnesota's main source of student financial aid.
Adding in those students would cost the grant program about $540,000 a year, plus another $100,000 in one-time administration costs. Office of Higher Education analyst Meredith Fergus has testified that the program could handle the students fairly easily. The cost would be the equivalent of .03 percent of the State Grant budget -- or grant funding for about two students per campus.
To cover them, the state would decrease by up to two dollars the awards that current State Grant holders would normally receive.
"This is really important for actually a very small number of students," Pappas said. "But it's very symbolic for a lot of students in this state -- a lot of immigrant students who dare to dream that they, too, can obtain a college education."
The University of Minnesota would lose an estimated $175,000 a year for educating the students under the lower instate tuition rates. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system would lose about $1.5 million a year. Both institutions signed off on the legislative fiscal note, indicating they could absorb those costs.
Republicans supported two main elements in the bill -- the granting of instate tuition and access to privately funded university scholarships.
But several GOP lawmakers opposed giving the students state financial aid.
Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said the law would give the immigrant students special treatment.
"We have other resident students and families who are struggling to make tuition payments today," he said.
Sen. Julianne Ortmann, R-Chanhassan, argued that immigration was a federal issue, and that Minnesota should "not get in the way."
The House and Senate will meet later this session in a "conference committee" to reconcile House and Senate higher-education legislation into one bill.
But House has passed no version of the Dream Act. Pappas said she would try to include her Dream Act legislation in the omnibus higher education bill.
House higher-education Chairman Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, has also called immigration a federal issue and said the Dream Act "is not part of the House's position." He said Tuesday that Dream Act supporters would have to trade "a lot" to get it into the main bill.
Pappas said the Senate passed similar Dream Act legislation twice in the past decade, but that it never got past the House or included in conference committee.
Pappas says public sentiment on immigration has changed over the years, and DFL control of state government has improved the legislation's chances.
Katharine Tinucci, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mark Dayton, said Dayton has supported Dream Act legislation in the past and would sign it if it reached his desk.