The Maryland Dream Act: Giving Undocumented Students Like Me a Fair Shot

Nov 5, 2012Jonathan J. Green

Higher education should be accessible to all students looking to better themselves and give back to their communities.

Marylanders will see a long list of referenda items in this year’s ballot when they head to the polls tomorrow. For me, the most important one is the Maryland Dream Act, a bill that would allow the state’s undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at its public colleges and universities if they meet certain eligibility criteria and would give all students an equal shot at higher education. I am a living, breathing example of the type of student who would be helped by this bill – someone simply trying to better himself and give back to his community who met obstacle after obstacle in trying to attain higher education. The whole state stands to benefit when students like me can afford to attend the school of their dreams.

I grew up in an immigrant household. My family and I moved to the United States in 2005 and I entered 8th grade as an ESOL student shortly afterwards. The only guidance I was given in regards to school was “go to school and do well.” So I focused on academics like my parents suggested. I started high school taking all ESOL classes, but managed, with a lot of hard work, to move to honors courses, then AP courses, and even participated in a dual-enrollment program at my local community college.

But in my high school years, something else happened: I became a Marylander. I was so impressed by the dedication of the teachers and adults around me, and felt so fortunate to live in a state where education is valued and made accessible to everyone, that I had to give back. I started volunteering in my church, became part of mentoring groups, organized community service projects, and even became my senior class vice president. I was so involved at the end of my high school career that I racked up over 1,000 community service learning hours, far above the 50 that were required for graduation.

Throughout all of my work, I had thought I was like every other student in my high school. But during my senior year I realized that my parents’ legal troubles would have a significant impact on my road to higher education. Even though my weighted GPA at the end of my high school career was over a 4.0 and I had been involved in several leadership and community service activities, I couldn't attend the college of my dreams because my undocumented status meant I couldn't receive financial aid. Luckily I was able to gain admission into my community college’s highly selective honors program and received a private scholarship to fund my education for two years. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to attend college at all.

At the end of my two years at community college, my dream was to transfer to the University of Maryland, College Park to study public policy or sociology. It seemed like the obvious choice since their programs for both disciplines are among the best in the nation and the school is located about 15 minutes away from my house. Despite gaining admission to the school, I could not attend because, as an undocumented immigrant, I wasn’t considered an in-state student. Instead of paying the more reasonable in-state price tag of $8,500, my legal status meant that I’d have to come up with $24,000 a year without any financial aid. That difference was more than my family could afford.

Again, I was fortunate. Goucher, a private college in the state of Maryland, was able to offer me some aid, which had made it a little more affordable than the public school of my dreams.

I have been lucky. But it is unacceptable that it is more affordable for me to attend a private school and live on campus than to attend the public school around the corner. Tomorrow, Maryland voters will consider Question 4, known as the Maryland Dream Act. It would give Maryland’s undocumented students the opportunity to pay in-state tuition if they meet certain eligibility criteria: attending and graduating from a Maryland high school or its equivalent, filing income taxes, attending a community college for the first two years, and others.

This bill is financially profitable for the state. Its passage will generate $66 million in revenue per graduating class for the state, according to an independent University of Maryland, Baltimore County study. The revenue comes from the fact that the more educated our workforce is, the more workers earn and thus pay in taxes back to the state. According to the study’s calculations, only about 435 students will take advantage of the Dream Act, or about 0.1 percent of the students enrolled in public higher education institutions in Maryland.

The Maryland Dream Act gives young Marylanders like me who come from tax-paying families a shot at higher education. Had it not been for Goucher, I would not have been able to continue my education and had the chance to improve my situation. There are hundreds of Maryland students like me hoping for a chance to succeed in life and give back to their home state of Maryland.

Jonathan Jayes-Green is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's education policy center director at Goucher College and is a junior.

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