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The Arizona Board of Regents adopts policies to comply with Prop 300, exposing unknowns

Spring break descended upon the University of Arizona this week, and hordes of college students have escaped to destinations near and far in search of worldly pleasures.

Upon their return, however, some of these frisky students will find a message in their e-mail inboxes informing them that they have to prove their citizenship status, or risk losing state-funded financial aid and reduced tuition rates reserved for Arizonans. The e-mail has links to a Web site with further information--including a list of frequently asked questions--on how students can establish that they're here legally.

On Thursday, March 8, the Arizona Board of Regents approved policies to bring the state's universities into compliance with Proposition 300, which was overwhelmingly passed by voters in November 2006. Among other provisions, Prop 300 mandates that students who are in the United States illegally be granted neither in-state tuition rates at state universities, nor access to financial aid funded with state dollars.

It's ostensibly part of an effort to prevent untold multitudes of illegal immigrants from attending state universities on the taxpayers' dime. The resident tuition rate for UA undergraduates is $4,754 per year, while the nonresident rate is $14,960. Tuition costs at Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University are roughly the same.

There could be problems, however: No one knows how many illegal immigrants are milking the system, and they won't know until universities report back with information on how many students were unable to prove their eligibility, as required twice yearly by the proposition. Some have estimated that up to several thousand students could find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Coupled with that uncertainty is the fact that no one knows the fiscal impact on the state's universities of having to verify citizenship status. Several regents at the March 8 meeting reportedly expressed concerns the supposed cure could be worse than the disease--financially speaking, at least.

Regent Gary Stuart, reached by phone several days after the meeting, thought it likely the costs of complying with the proposition would outweigh the savings from denying noncitizens resident tuition and state-funded financial aid.

"It's certainly not going to be cheap," he said, adding that "scores of people" have been working on Prop 300 compliance since December 2006.

But Stuart quickly qualified his statement by saying that it wasn't for him to make judgments on whether the economics of compliance should trump the political principles behind Prop 300. Rather, it's a matter of public debate, he said.

"We are the only university system in America that now is going to base in-state tuition not on residency, but on citizenship," Stuart said. "No one's done this before. We're going to reinvent the process by which applications for in-state tuition status are accomplished."

Nancy Tribbensee, general counsel for the Arizona university system, said the universities are trying to determine the price tag for complying with Prop 300, with the board in the dark until they come back with figures.

According to UA spokesman Johnny Cruz, there are a lot of variables that could impact the cost.

"It'll just depend on if we've got to add additional staff, or if there has got to be some adjustments to computer systems and everything," he said. "Since this is so new, it would be random guesswork at this point to give you a number."

To comply with the proposition, the regents decided to use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) after examining a variety of methods for determining citizenship, Tribbensee said. If students are awarded federal student aid after filling out the FAFSA, then they've gone through a vetting process that includes confirmation of "citizenship, permanent residence or lawful presence," according to the e-mail that was sent to UA students.

Cruz said about 60 percent of undergraduates have filed a FAFSA. Approximately 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students at the university don't have a FAFSA on file, and they'll have to produce acceptable documentation--a birth certificate, a passport, a naturalization certificate, etc.--proving their legal status if they wish to remain eligible for in-state tuition rates and state financial aid.

The UA main campus has set up a schedule for students to truck on over to the administration building with their documents, based on the first letter of their last names. The e-mail reminds them that with thousands needing to prove their legal status, "cooperation is important."

Still, Cruz said the university doesn't expect to root out too many students who are illegitimately receiving the benefits of citizenship.

"Right now, all signs point to there not being a large number," he said. "You know, the other thing that's important to note is that we've had significant citizenship and residency information on our applications for a long time, and every in-state student has had to provide a domicile affidavit, which, if falsified, they would run the risk of being expelled from the university.

"Other than the verification of providing additional documentation, the rest of the process has already been in place for quite a while, so I think that'll contribute to the fact that there's not going to be a large number of students."

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