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Undocumented Students Get Help With In-State Tuition

Gina Jordan/WLRN

As colleges and universities begin the fall semester, some undocumented students are paying the same tuition rate as Florida residents.

A handful of schools like Miami Dade College have been doing this for a while, but now the cheaper tuition is being offered statewide.

A law that went into effect July 1st grants in-state tuition to those who meet certain requirements.

Supporters say undocumented students pay taxes just like Florida residents, and therefore should pay the lower tuition.

Nestor Ruiz, 21, lives in Plant City. He arrived from Mexico when he was 5. He says he did well in school and was accepted into college - he didn’t want to say which one - but couldn’t afford it.

“I graduated from high school in 2011, and that’s when my education kind of stopped,” says Ruiz, who lobbied legislators at the Capitol last spring to pass the law. “Because I didn’t have legal status, they told me I could either pay like $9,000 every three months or not go there at all.” 

Until now, undocumented students were charged the nonresident rate for college, which can be three times more than the in-state rate.

Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez, youth organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, says many students don’t know they’re eligible for cheaper tuition or they’re afraid to apply.

“Students would be a lot calmer if they knew that they could just show up and say 'I’m here for the tuition waiver, here are the documents to prove it,'” Sousa-Rodriguez says. “But there’s always a lot of fear around what if I’m not able to answer their questions and what if I get rejected. I mean there’s a lot of anxiety around just the process of trying to ask for help.”

The state doesn’t know how many students the new law will impact. Florida’s undocumented resident population is estimated at close to 1 million.  

Eligible students need to request a tuition waiver from their school of choice.

“They’ll still be registered as a Florida nonresident,” Sousa-Rodriguez says. “They’ll have to show that they attended a Florida high school for 10th, 11th, and 12th grade consecutively and that they received a high school diploma.”

Students must apply for college within 2 years of graduating high school, or they can't get the cheaper rate. The law does not include in-state tuition for advanced degree programs, and applicants are not eligible for financial aid.

The Florida Immigrant Coalition has a free hotline to answer questions about the new law: 888-600-5762. Questions can also be submitted on their website.