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21 states now offer in-state tuition to unauthorized immigrants. Here's why.

This New York DREAMer, like most of her peers, would be eligible for in-state tuition today.
This New York DREAMer, like most of her peers, would be eligible for in-state tuition today.
Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty

This past week, Virginia and Florida became the 20th and 21st states in the country to offer in-state tuition to college students from their states who are unauthorized immigrants (also known as DREAMers). They're the latest states to adopt a policy that is rapidly becoming the new normal.

There's a been a burst of activity to pass "state DREAM Acts" over the last few years — 11 of the 21 states that offer in-state tuition passed those laws since 2011. But the states with "DREAM Acts" are still in the minority. In the other 29 states, an unauthorized immigrant resident who wants to go to a state college, university, or community college has to pony up for the much pricier out-of-state tuition rate. (More frequently, of course, students who can't get in-state tuition can't afford to go to college at all.)

In terms of where DREAMers actually live, though, it's a different picture. As of this week, over 80 percent of DREAMers live in a state where they could pay in-state rates to go to college. Furthermore, the recent burst of DREAM Acts passed by state legislatures represents a relatively small increase in the number of eligible DREAMers — several states, including a few very surprising early adopters, have been quietly offering in-state tuition to much of the DREAMer population for the last decade.

Here's a GIF showing the spread of in-state tuition for DREAMers, along with how many DREAMers live in each state:


We used the estimated number of unauthorized immigrants in each state who are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as a way to measure the number of DREAMers living in each state.

By that measure, 772,000 of the approximately 937,000 DREAMers in the United States live in states that offer them in-state tuition. But it's worth noting that the number of DREAMers who are actually enrolled in state colleges or universities is much smaller than that— even in states that have improved college access by granting in-state tuition.

For one thing, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program covers DREAMers all the way up to 30 years old — long after most of them have already graduated from college or decided not to go. For another, only four states allow unauthorized immigrants to get financial aid — so while college is less expensive in states with DREAM Acts than states without them, it's still pretty expensive. In all, most states estimate that only 1 percent of their student body is unauthorized.

But researchers say that state DREAM Acts don't just improve access to college — they make it more likely that students will graduate from high school. Studies show that passing in-state tuition policies can reduce the drop-out rate among noncitizens by 7 to 10 percentage points. Furthermore, according to Tanya Broder of the National Immigration Law Center, it improves the graduation rate for some US citizens as well: "we see it across the cohort of all Latinos," she says, "because it's affecting the students around them, it's their peer group."

The GIF shows that improving college access for unauthorized students hasn't always been a partisan issue, and the positive effects identified by Broder help explain why even the conservative states that have extended in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants haven't yet repealed the policy. That forward motion is a lot of the reason that for over four-fifths of DREAMers today, in-state college tuition is the new normal.

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