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March 26, 2013

In-state tuition bill pulled from panel

OKLAHOMA CITY — Legislation that would extend in-state tuition rates to people who graduate from an Oklahoma high school but later move out of state was put on hold Monday after its author said the plan’s intention was being muddled in misunderstandings.

The bill specifically says only U.S. citizens would qualify, which raised questions about whether it would block illegal immigrants from an existing program that grants them in-state tuition if they meet certain requirements. Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, who sponsored the bill, said those fears were unfounded because anyone who currently qualified for in-state tuition won’t be affected.

“We want to expand access — we don’t want to restrict access,” he said. “Those people ... seem to be reading everything in the bill except this part.”

The bill was scheduled to come before the House Higher Education Subcommittee on Monday, but it was laid over, meaning it could come back at a later meeting. Sparks said that will allow time to clarify the language and work with higher education officials.

The controversy started last week, when several immigrant students and a state education official latched onto the bill’s citizenship requirement. They said it could disqualify students who are illegal immigrants from in-state tuition — including those already in college — and potentially put a college education out of their reach.

Under current state law, Oklahoma high school students who were brought into the U.S. illegally are eligible for in-state tuition if they sign an affidavit promising to seek legal status as soon as possible, among other requirements.

“At best, it’s unclear,” said Angela Caddell, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. “In its current form, the bill does read to adversely affect undocumented students.”

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