A new lawsuit claims South Carolina’s college tuition requirements are unconstitutional for children of undocumented immigrants, forcing them to pay higher tuition than their peers.
The legal complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center challenges state regulations that require parents prove they are in South Carolina legally in order for their children to receive in-state tuition. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three students, including two who applied to College of Charleston and Trident Technical College. All three were born in other states but have lived in South Carolina for at least 10 years. One Converse College student has lived in Inman for 19 years.
The SPLC’s staff attorney told South Carolina Radio Network the group is seeking class-action status for all South Carolina students who are American citizens, but have undocumented parents. She estimated up to 170 students would fit the criteria each year.
“(The policies) are essentially rendering them stateless,” Michelle Lapointe said. “It’s saying they’re not residents of South Carolina, but they can’t establish residency anywhere else. They’ve only known South Carolina as their home.”
South Carolina law does not bar children of illegal or undocumented immigrants from receiving financial aid. However, state Commission on Higher Education (CHE) regulations require dependent students to list their parents’ state of residency. If their parents are unable to do so, then the student is considered a “non-resident” and is not eligible for in-state tuition or financial aid.
At the College of Charleston (CofC), the annual cost for a four-year bachelor’s degree is $10,558 for in-state students, but more than $27,000 for nonresidents. Complicating the situation is that instate residents are often able to get thousands of dollars in lottery-funded scholarships to help reduce their tuition costs even further.
CofC President Glenn McConnell and Trident Tech President Mary Thornley are named as defendants in the suit, as are the CHE’s director and board members. Representatives from CofC and the CHE declined to comment Tuesday, saying they had not yet had time to review the complaint.
Trident’s president did respond. “We are an ‘open door’ institution, committed to serving all of the residents of our three-county service area in every way possible,” Thornley said in a statement to the Charleston Post and Courier. “Also, we are a public institution that must fully comply with state law and regulations. While we would like to accept all students and assist them in receiving financial aid, we must comply with state law and regulations.”
Appleseed Legal Justice Center staff attorney Tammy Besherse said the group has been able to get individual students placed at South Carolina colleges in the past. But she believes the regulations need to be changed.
“It’s impacting them unfairly for something they cannot change,” Besherse told South Carolina Radio Network. “We have got to find a way to bring a class-action lawsuit so we can change the law. And let everyone who is in this situation being treated wrongly get the benefit of what they deserve as not only U.S. citizens, but clearly South Carolina residents.
South Carolina is the last state with strict proof-of-residency requirements for its scholarships. Similar lawsuits have overturned policies in New Jersey and Florida, Besherse said.