Politics & Government

Kobach tweet links tuition, undocumented immigrants. But there’s no proof

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has said ending a law that gives undocumented immigrants in-state tuition at state colleges and universities could "stem the rising tide of tuition hikes."

But there is no definitive evidence that would happen.

Tuition costs are rising this fall at Kansas State University, the University of Kansas, Wichita State University and other institutions. Kobach, a Republican candidate for governor, tweeted last week that he would end in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants if elected governor.

An Eagle review of higher-education cost data and legislative documents found little to suggest that ending the policy would make a significant difference in slowing or stopping tuition increases.

Asked about his tweet, Kobach acknowledged Tuesday that changing the policy alone would not halt increases in tuition.

“You can’t solve the problem of tuition hikes across the board in Kansas higher education just by stopping in-state tuition for illegal aliens. It is a much bigger issue than that,” Kobach said.

About 670 undocumented immigrants enrolled in Kansas universities and community colleges this fall under a 2004 policy that allows them to pay in-state tuition rates if they went to high school in Kansas and are pursuing or plan to pursue legalization or citizenship.

They account for 0.37 percent of all students, according to the Kansas Board of Regents, which governs the state’s public higher education institutions.

Carolina Hernandez-Arango, a recipient of a federal program that allows individuals brought to the country illegally as children to remain, told lawmakers earlier this year that undocumented students wouldn’t be able to afford out-of-state tuition.

“Many believe that undocumented students receive federal aid, and I am here to assure you that is completely untrue,” she said at a February hearing.

If undocumented students paid out-of-state rates, they would pay an additional $2.3 million, according to State Budget Director Larry Campbell.

Kobach said the saved money — which he placed at roughly $4 million — could be used to subsidize the tuition of U.S. citizens.

“You divide that up by the number of students, and it would offer relief to many Kansans at these universities,” Kobach said. “I think it’s really appalling that we have been doing this in Kansas … since 2004. It was illegal in 2004, it’s illegal in 2018. And it’s unfair.”

Kobach said some states bar undocumented immigrants from enrolling. He said "at this point in Kansas, I would be happy" to just end in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. But he also noted that they are not lawfully present in the classroom.

Saving even $4 million pales in comparison with the rising amount of tuition dollars. Between fiscal year 2018 and 2019, tuition revenue coming into Regents-controlled institutions will climb $12.9 million, to $742.7 million, the Regents said.

Over the past decade, tuition revenue has increased $274.6 million. At the same time, the tuition rates charged to students has also climbed. Between 2009 and 2019, undergraduate tuition costs climbed between 58 percent and 63 percent at the state's three biggest universities.

At KU, tuition now costs $4,908 a semester. It’s $4,636 at K-State and $3,272 at WSU.

It’s not entirely clear how much of the increased tuition revenue is due to changes in enrollment and how much is due to rising tuition rates, but the headcount at state colleges and universities is about the same as it was a decade ago, according to the latest Regents enrollment report. Enrollment increased to a high-water mark in 2012 before dipping back down.

“There are less than 1,000 students that are undocumented, and they are paying their way fair and square. If (Kobach) truly believes that they are the reason our tuition is rising, then that’s a problem,” said Carly Tracz, a graduate student in school counseling at K-State.

After Kobach tweeted about tuition, Tracz responded to him with a tweet that got 947 likes. Kobach’s original tweet got 390.

She said in her tweet that rising tuition costs could be controlled if the state restored higher-education funding. Kansas lawmakers have moved to restore some funding after cuts in 2015. But funding levels remain well below what they were a decade ago.

In 2009, Kansas provided $657 million to higher education. In 2019, the amount is expected to be $584 million.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman