A federal judge ruled in favor of the Young Conservatives of Texas in its lawsuit against the university, stating charging higher tuition for out-of-state students than Texan students with undocumented immigrant status is unconstitutional.
Represented by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the North Texas chapter of YCT filed its lawsuit in November 2020, alleging it had members who were hurt by the higher out-of-state tuition prices. On average, state residents at the university pay $26,500 annually while out-of-state students are charged $38,800, according to the Dallas Morning News.
“By enforcing federal law, this here is an opportunity to make attending college in Texas more affordable for thousands of current students,” said Rob Henneke, the TPPF attorney representing YCT.
YCT representatives did not respond to the Daily’s request for comment.
The legal basis for the suit was a 1996 federal law stating any persons not documented as immigrants are not eligible for “postsecondary education” unless a documented U.S. resident was as well, in “no less an amount, duration, and scope.”
A 2001 state law decreed all Texas residents with undocumented immigration status who had lived in the state for more than three years and had graduated from a Texas high school could qualify for in-state tuition. In 2021, approximately 22,000 students who were enrolled in Texas colleges and universities used this benefit, according to the Texas Tribune.
While the university was the only school listed in the lawsuit, Henneke said he expects others across the state to follow U.S. District Judge Sean Jordan’s ruling.
“All state universities are now on notice that the state law that allowed them to charge a much higher rate for tuition for out-of-state students has been declared unconstitutional,” Henneke said.
In the opinion released after the April 8 ruling, Jordan called the tuition prices and 2001 statute a “scheme.” Jordan, an appointee from the Trump presidency, did not respond to requests for comment.
By declaring the practice unconstitutional according to the 1996 federal law, some believe the 2001 law is now at risk of being overturned.
“As a professor, part of my job is to encourage and support students,” said Mariela “Profe” Nuñez-Janes, professor and Eagles Dreamers Allies mentor. “One of the tools that I have to encourage and support this particular population will be lost.”
The ruling’s potential to affect students with undocumented immigrant status is “scary,” said Nuñez-Janes. By declaring the tuition differences unconstitutional, other lawmakers could charge resident Texans with undocumented statuses, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a much higher tuition.
“It’s an additional layer of vulnerability to an already very vulnerable population,” Nuñez-Janes said.
Because the state statute has been in effect for more than 20 years, Nuñez-Janes said she did not understand why concerns about its constitutionality would only come up now.
“Texas is not the only state that provides in-state tuition [to students with undocumented immigrant status],” Nuñez-Janes said. “It’s a very unusual type of argument that has not been brought up before.”
If the tuition for students with undocumented immigration status increased, Nuñez-Janes said it could also affect the university’s status as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a certification given to 411 colleges and universities nationwide meant to celebrate their dedication to serving its Hispanic students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“We’re, I believe, at 25.7 percent of Latinx student enrollment,” Nuñez-Janes said. “HSI requires 25 percent.”
Nuñez-Janes said the loss in status would hurt the entire university, as one of 18 HSIs with tier-one research status.
“Funding that the university utilized to create those emergency funds for students during the pandemic [was] the result of some HSI funding,” Nuñez-Janes said. “The biggest loss would be for students if we lost HSI [status] and potentially our reputation as an institution, which we’ve always had of being among the top 10, top 100 colleges for Latinx students.”
The Daily also reached out to President Neal Smatresk, who was named in the lawsuit along with Vice President of Enrollment Shannon Goodman and the university system as a whole. While Goodman did not respond to a request for comment, Vice President for University Brand Strategy and Communications Jim Berscheidt responded on Smatresk’s behalf and sent the university’s most recent statement.
“Attorneys for the university reviewed the ruling and have filed a notice of appeal,” Berscheidt said in an email to the Daily.
Economics and accounting junior Oscar Silva is the president of Eagle Dreamers and a DACA recipient who came to Texas when he was 2 years old. Silva said he believes the university and its attorneys will fight the ruling with everything they have.
“I think UNT is going to do whatever it can,” Silva said. “It would be a really bad representation of their image and I think they just want to avoid that as much as possible.”
Silva learned about the ruling the day it was announced and remembered speaking about it with another Eagle Dreamers member.
“If something like this were to go into effect on a federal level, then you’re basically setting up immigrants for failure,” Silva said. “It just goes completely against any type of sense.”
Until the university appeals the ruling, or fails to appeal it, it is unable to charge out-of-state students higher tuition, said Henneke. If the ruling stands, Silva said he believes it would still take a few years of trials before students with undocumented immigrant status would feel any effects.
Silva, who enrolled at the university partly because of the scholarships and lower in-state tuition, said he would not be able to afford an extra $12,000 charge.
“If it were to get to that, I would likely transfer away from UNT or try to finish my degree even earlier just to avoid all of that,” Silva said.
As the university continues to celebrate high enrollment and its HSI and Minority-Serving Institution status, there is still the risk incoming students could be hurt by the ruling and send the university “back to square one,” said Nuñez-Janes.
“This is a time for the institutions and their lawyers to step up their game and put the interests of students at the top and defend the right that students have to be able to receive access to an education that has been promised to them,” Nuñez-Janes said.