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Rhode Island offers lower tuition to immigrants

By Daniel Lovering

CAMBRIDGE, Mass (Reuters) - Rhode Island next year will begin allowing illegal immigrants to pay lower in-state college tuition, the 13th state to allow some form of lower tuition for undocumented immigrants.

The Board of Governors for Higher Education approved the measure at a meeting late Monday after the state legislature failed to take action for six years.

Governor Lincoln Chafee, an Independent, had urged the board to adopt the measure, which takes effect in September 2012, said board spokesman Michael Trainor.

Some 400 people crowded into the meeting at Community College of Rhode Island, where all 11 members in attendance from the 13-member board voted for the measure.

Rhode Island joins 12 states nationwide that have introduced laws allowing undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition fees under certain conditions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But Rhode Island is the only one that has introduced such a measure without going through its state legislature.

To be eligible under the new policy, students who immigrated illegally must have completed at least three years of high school in Rhode Island, graduated from a high school or received a GED in the state, and signed an affidavit saying they will pursue citizenship as soon as possible, Trainor said.

A group that opposes the measure, Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, said on its website that illegal immigration caused a "tremendous financial drain" on the state.

Executive director Terry Gorman said the group considered the board's decision a "travesty" and was considering legal action to stop it.

Public schools have taught undocumented students through 12th grade without question for years, and advocates pushed for the new measure partly to maintain a consistent policy when those students reach college age, Trainor said.

They also consider it part of an economic development strategy to ensure a highly trained work force that generates tax revenue and contributes to the economy, he said.

Tuition for Rhode Island residents is significantly lower than for out-of-state students at its university and community colleges.

For example, at the University of Rhode Island, out-of-state tuition is $27,262, while in-state tuition is just $10,556; at Rhode Island College, it is $16,878 out-of-state and $6,986 in-state; and at Community College of Rhode Island, it is $9,792 out-of-state and $3,652 in-state.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)