Amid complaints of confusion and inconsistent enforcement, the California State University system has begun notifying thousands of students and applicants considered illegal residents that they face drastic tuition increases that could force many out of school.
An estimated 2,000 students enrolled in or seeking to attend CSU's 10 Southern California campuses are receiving warnings that their tuition will increase from $1,584 annually to $8,965 because of a court ruling restricting the lower fees to students who are legal residents of the state.
Those receiving the warnings include 382 current or prospective students at Cal State Northridge whose notices were mailed late last week.
"It's affected me physically, psychologically, morally, in every way you can imagine," said one senior at Northridge who fears becoming a dropout.
Although there are no official statistics, the largest portion of those affected are believed to be poor Latinos who will have difficulty finding the money to continue their educations. Cal State Los Angeles and CSUN are expected to be the hardest-hit campuses.
The fee hikes stem from a court case decided in January, which reversed a 10-year-old Cal State policy that granted the lower tuition to students who resided in the state, even if they were in the country illegally.
Those assessed the higher tuition--the same fees charged out-of-state and foreign students--will also no longer be eligible for any public financial aid.
Some administrators and immigrant advocates are complaining of confusion in implementing the new policy because some campuses have been more organized than others in identifying students who reside here illegally.
Officials at two schools, Fullerton and Bakersfield, said their students may escape the increase because of problems in determining which ones are undocumented.
"It certainly does raise fairness questions in that, out of happenstance, some students are being charged non-resident tuition and some aren't," said Robert Rubin, one of several lawyers who represented students in the Cal State case.
"But I don't know what one does about it."
Statewide, Cal State officials say many students who get the warnings might be able to avoid the increase if they can prove they have achieved legal status. But among the still-undetermined number of truly undocumented, there has been a worried scramble to avoid being forced out of school.
"Your choices for the future are really limited," said the CSUN senior. "It's like I have my arms chained and I can't do anything about it."
Though just a year away from earning her degree in Chicano studies, the Mexico-born woman--who asked to remain anonymous--said she is considering switching to a less-expensive community college or leaving school to work to save money.
Community college tuition, even for non-residents, would still be less than half that of Cal State.
The woman said her family sent her to California illegally when she was young. And like most undocumented students born in other countries, she spent much of her life attending California public schools. As Fullerton Admissions Director Jim Blackburn said, "I get very few high school diplomas from San Salvador or Guadalajara High."
The CSUN student's predicament was born of the same movement that sponsored Proposition 187, the measure passed by state voters in November that calls for public education to be denied to illegal immigrants.
Though Proposition 187 remains on hold pending several legal challenges, some of its proponents marked another victory on Jan. 17 before the 2nd District Court of Appeal. In response to a several-year-old lawsuit--American Assn. of Women vs. the California State University Board of Trustees--the state appeals court in Los Angeles held that students living in the country illegally could no longer pay the lower tuition reserved for state residents.
The University of California and community college systems already were charging undocumented students higher non-resident fees, so the ruling foreclosed the last avenue of public higher education for many of the students.
After the January ruling, Cal State officials decided not to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Now, because Cal State officials have left implementation of the new tuition policy to the system's 21 individual campuses, Cal State spokeswoman Colleen Bentley-Adler said she had no idea what portion of the system's total 320,000 students show up in records as residing here illegally.
The Times obtained an estimate of nearly 2,000 students among the 10 Southern California campuses by surveying each of them individually. Campus officials said that by reviewing admissions records, they had identified at least 1,138 current students and 718 applicants who may have to pay the higher tuition.