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January 16, 2013
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Controversial tuition bill hits home in Summit County

Javier reads like a typical college freshman.

Majoring in political science, with the casual long-term goal of becoming a diplomat or CEO, he spends his spare time hiking and hanging out with friends.

On the weekends, he comes home to Summit County to go snowboarding with "college buddies."

But Javier isn't typical. He was brought to the U.S. illegally when he was 12 years old. Now, his status as an undocumented immigrant is tripling his tuition rate from that of other in-state freshmen at his school. His ability to afford the next three years of college is uncertain.

"It's a big barrier," said Javier, whose last name the Summit Daily is not releasing due to his legal status. "It's a big gap between in-state and out. ... It frustrates me a little bit."

This week Democrats introduced legislation, known as the asset bill, which would allow undocumented students who attend Colorado high schools for at least three years to qualify for in-state tuition rates at state colleges.

Lawmakers have killed several versions of the bill in recent years, but with Gov. John Hickenlooper's support and Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate, Summit County's Rep. Millie Hamner (D - Dillon) said she thinks the measure could become law this year.

She plans to back the bill if it arrives in the House this session.

"I believe it does have a good shot," said Hamner, who chairs the House Education Committee. "I will do what I can in the chair position to find bipartisan support on the committee. If I need to work a little harder and collaborate a little more to reach agreement, I'm willing to do that."

But the controversial measure has a tough road ahead. With mixed reactions from the public, versions of the bill have been shut down before with Democrats in control of both chambers.

Opponents call the legislation unfair to legal immigrants - who pay out-of-state tuition rates as foreign students - and misleading to illegal immigrants.

"They can't get a job," House Minority Leader Mark Waller (R - Colorado Springs) told The Denver Post. "I think it gives false hope. It's just another attempt for Democrats to make government all things to all people."

The bill would require undocumented students to supply proof that they are applying to become legal residents of the U.S. to qualify for reduced tuition rates.

For a student attending Colorado Mountain College, a full course load is less than $900 per semester. For an out-of-state student, the same semester costs nearly $4,500. Javier says he has friends in the county who are working multiple jobs to cover the cost of the local community college.

"A lot of these students have been in our community for their entire education," said Summit High School teacher Molly Griffith, who leads the pre-collegiate program, intended to assist students who are trying to become the first in their family to go to college. "These are students we all know who participate, volunteer in our community, who play team sports. They deserve this opportunity just as much as any other student."

Javier was one of those kids. He learned English as a middle schooler by volunteering to pick up recycling. In high school, he was an Eagle Scout and a member of the wrestling team.

He says he sees the asset bill as a boon for universities as much as for undocumented students.

"It would change the dynamics of diversity in colleges," he said. "There's a lot of talent and potential out there that we don't know about yet, just because the opportunity is not there for everybody."

Javier made it to a four-year university with the help of scholarships and a donation to cover his first year's tuition. He says the asset bill would help put the next year's costs within his reach, and make a higher education possible for those coming after him.

The bill is set to go before the Senate Education Committee Jan. 24.

The Denver Post contributed to this story.


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The Summit Daily Updated Jan 24, 2013 11:50AM Published Jan 16, 2013 09:31PM Copyright 2013 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.