Tuition equity bill passes Oregon House, heads to Senate

Over half the room silently rose to their feet, their hands joined and raised up to the ceiling, at the moment Oregon’s tuition equity bill passed through the State of Oregon’s House last Friday. University of Oregon student Tania Sarabia was among those standing. Along with other members of the UO’s Chicano student group, MEChA, Sarabia had traveled to Salem that day to show her support for the bill.

H.B. 2787 would allow undocumented Oregon high school graduates to pay in-state tuition at Oregon universities instead of the steep international rates, which currently apply to them. To be eligible, students are required to have studied in the United States for a minimum of five years, attended an Oregon high school for at least three years and show intention to enroll for American citizenship. The bill is now headed to the Oregon senate, which had passed similar bills in 2003 and 2011, when it failed to pass in the House.

Oregon University System spokeswoman Diane Saunders said the passage of the bill allows the students, whose high school education Oregon has already invested in, to continue on in college.

“We’ve made significant investments in (these students),” Saunders said. “This allows them to continue their education and contribution to the State of Oregon.”

She said the bill would also benefit the state of Oregon financially. According to her, research shows the higher a citizen’s education is, the less the state will pay for them in social services. Additionally, according to OUS estimates, should tuition equity pass, the net revenue gain for the OUS system between 2013 and 2015 would be $334,820. Between 2015 and 2017, the number is estimated to be $1.6 million.

For Sarabia, the passage of the bill and the effects it could have are personal. Although she is attending a university, her cousin, who first inspired her to go to college, is unable to due to her illegal status. With the passage of the bill, Sarabia hopes her cousin will have the opportunity to attend a university as well.

“For me, the first person who really got me energized to go to college was my cousin who was undocumented, and she was going to community college,” she said.

Sarabia, like many other college students, was heavily involved in advocating for the passage of the bill. Along with UO students from MEChA, the Oregon Student Association and Oregon Students of Color Coalition, she attended the bill’s committee hearings and delivered Valentine’s Day cards to representatives supporting the bill. In the days leading up to the House hearing, she and other students were busy contacting representatives to encourage them to vote “yes” on the bill.

“People are really passionate about this issue,” she said.

According to Democratic representative and UO alum Ben Unger, it is because of college students like Sarabia the tuition equity bill was able to pass through the House. Unger, who represents District 29, has been lobbying for the bill for the past 10 years and said the involvement of college students was what made the difference this year. Because students are directly impacted by the bill, their personal stories made a tremendous impact, he said, and their advocating for the issue showed representatives its importance and prevented it from being forgotten over time.

“This is a bill that was passed by college students,” Unger said.

According to him, the passage of the bill is of great importance to students.

“It’s important that every student in the State of Oregon who graduates from an Oregon high school has the right to go to an Oregon college,” he said. “Unless the bill passes through the House and Senate and signed by the governor, that won’t happen.”

Both he and Sarabia are optimistic the bill will pass through the Senate. Governor John Kitzhaber has already promised to sign the bill into action.

However, the passage of the bill does not solve all the problems for undocumented students. Under the bill, they are not eligible for state or federal financial aid, and scholarships are limited. For Sarabia and other students involved, though, the bill’s passage through the House is a victory.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” she said.

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