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Hayden: New York should pass its Dream Act

Photo Credit: TMS illustration by Donna Grethen/

Undocumented young people are everywhere in our public schools. They pay tuition at our colleges and universities. Despite a persistent misperception, they and their parents pay taxes. Still, they are denied access to New York's landmark Tuition Assistance Program -- or TAP, as it is known. And, for far too many of them, that means they cannot attend college.

The claimed rationale for this jarring disparity is that these kids are "illegal," even though many of them have never known a home other than New York. It is the status of their parents, not theirs, that lies at the heart of the unresolved national debate on immigration. These young people are New Yorkers -- if not born, then raised -- and they aspire only to what we seek for all our children: an opportunity to go to college.

This treatment is not only indisputably inequitable, it is also shortsighted and counterproductive. We know with certainty that college graduates earn more money than those who do not have a degree. A study by CEOs for Cities found that New Yorkers would generate an additional $17.5 billion in annual income if degree attainment were to be increased by 1 percent.

And, of course, such a dramatic increase in income correlates with an equally dramatic increase in tax revenue. Undocumented New Yorkers pay sales tax, income tax and, as either owners or renters, real property tax. In fact, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, estimates that in 2010, undocumented residents in New York paid more than $660 million in state and local taxes.

How much would it cost to make this cohort of New Yorkers TAP eligible? The Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that providing TAP to undocumented New Yorkers who would qualify for it (they'd have to meet the same GPA and family income standards as everyone else) would increase enrollment in the program by about 1 percent, at a cost of approximately $17 million.

Two compelling public policy objectives are simultaneously served by this modest investment: expanded opportunity and a larger, more highly skilled, workforce.

When it comes to higher education issues, our elected representatives invariably focus on the issue of affordability. Particularly when the issue at hand is tuition policy, senators and Assembly members have been adamant that cost should never serve as a bar to access. That is precisely why New York has always insisted that tuition not rise above the sum that TAP is able to defray.

The purpose of the New York Dream Act is to extend the reach of that promise to the children of undocumented New Yorkers. While the bill would not confer citizenship, it would allow undocumented students who already meet New York's in-state tuition requirements to apply for financial aid for higher education.

We have a great stake in the success of this population of young people. At the end of the day, they will either generate revenue or consume it. So it is very much in our self-interest to support the Dream Act. And it is the right thing to do.

Waiting on Washington is rarely a productive exercise. Washington may or may not ever make its way to comprehensive immigration reform. But here in New York, we need not wait to strike a blow for fairness, opportunity and productivity.

When lawmakers return to Albany next week, they should pass the Dream Act.

Carl Hayden is former Regents chancellor and former chairman of the SUNY Board of Trustees.