Metropolitan State College of Denver officials are set to talk to lawmakers about a tuition rate they set for illegal immigrants that Republican Attorney General John Suthers says is against the law.
The college's decision this month has drawn criticism from Republicans who rejected Democrats' legislation this session that also sought to make higher education less expensive for illegal immigrants.
The Joint Budget Committee is scheduled to talk with Metro State about the new rate Wednesday.
Suthers issued an opinion Tuesday, saying Metro State's unilateral decision is "not supported by governing law." He said lawmakers must decide whether to provide the benefit to illegal immigrants.
"After carefully reviewing the state and federal law in this area, my office has concluded that Colorados state-supported higher-education institutions cannot create discounted tuition categories for students who are unable to prove their lawful presence in the United States," said Suthers.
"The General Assembly may continue to consider this issue," Suthers said. "In the meantime, however, state-supported institutions of higher education in Colorado cannot act unilaterally. Under federal law, they must await a decision by the legislature."
The new tuition rate lets certain illegal immigrants attend college at about $3,578 per semester. That's about half what they'd pay under the nonresident rate. Some argue Metro is not setting new rates, but rather, a new category of rates.
"We just don't agree with that. Colorado statutes create two classifications of students residents and non-residents," said Metro State president Stephen Jordan. "And there have historically been, within the non-resident category, multiple rates of tuition."
Others blame the AG's office for making this a political debate.
"I utterly reject that," said deputy attorney general David Blake. "We were asked by our clients for what the legal opinion would be. We gave it. We justified it. The opinion speaks for itself. There's nothing about politics or policy in it."
While Suthers' opinion does not forbid the college to proceed with the new tuition rate, a footnote on his legal brief warns that federal funding it receives could be jeopardized if the college violates a law prohibiting state and local public benefits from going to illegal immigrants.
The college said it went to great lengths to make sure no state funds subsidized the tuition of illegal immigrants. For instance, the new tuition rate did not include a state subsidy given to in-state students, and illegal immigrants would pay an additional amount for using buildings constructed with state money.
But Suthers said that a reduced tuition rate is in itself a public benefit under federal and state law. In 2006, lawmakers passed a bill forbidding local governments from granting some benefits, excluding emergency services, to illegal immigrants.
The Colorado Community College System asked for Suthers' opinion on whether Metro's action was legal.
Terrance Carroll, a Metro State trustee, said in a tweet that Suthers issued an opinion to support "his ideological & political beliefs not the law."
Republicans who opposed the tuition change bill this session were upset over Metro State's decision and sent a letter to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper asking him to intervene. At the time, Hickenlooper's office said he would wait for Suthers' opinion before weighing in.
He said he appreciates Metro State's motive, but added, "We also respect the attorney general's opinion."
"On balance, we think the better and more certain approach to this problem is not to proceed institution by institution, but rather to pass legislation at the state and federal level," he said.
Thirteen states, including California and Texas, have crafted and passed tuition legislation for illegal immigrants, and those have survived legal challenges.
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