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Thursday, Oct 23, 2014
Education

Immigrant students say thanks for in-state tuition rates

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Published:   |   Updated: June 25, 2014 at 11:54 AM

— In case anyone needed the math done for them, Celeste Pioquinto was happy to oblige.

Out-of-state tuition at Florida Polytechnic University, where the St. Petersburg College student has been accepted to study cybersecurity and information assurance: about $23,000 a year. In-state tuition at Poly – about $5,000 a year.

“Eighteen thousand dollars,” Pioquinto told a crowd at SPC's Clearwater campus. “That's pretty good for me,” she said to a roomful of laughter.

Throw in the fact that Florida Polytechnic is providing $5,000 scholarships to all members of its inaugural class this fall, and Pioquinto is in great shape heading into her first year there. That's thanks to legislation passed this spring that provides in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants, with Florida joining 17 other states that have written it into state law.

SPC invited state Sen. Jack Latvala, who carried the measure, state Rep. Ed Hooper, another supporter, as well with college staff and students to a Tuesday rally and celebration of the signing of House Bill 851. Both Latvala and Hooper are Republicans from Clearwater.

Latvala, who had to overcome initial resistance to the measure among his fellow lawmakers, told the crowd he relied on Florida's history of keeping down the cost of in-state tuition. The state waives about two-thirds of the cost of an education at state schools.

The idea, Latvala said, was that if you pay taxes in Florida, you should get a break for your kids to go to school.

“It has nothing to do with citizenship. It was based on who was a taxpayer,” Latvala told a crowd of more than 100 at a SPC Clearwater meeting room. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, you know in your individual circumstances that even though there may be some citizenship issues, there is not an issue with the fact that your parents have paid taxes, have worked in Florida and deserve the same break that every other child that graduates from a Florida high school gets.”

Few in Tallahassee found in-state tuition for illegal immigrants acceptable on its own, so in February, at the same SPC campus, Latvala announced he would work the measure into a sweeping higher education overhaul that benefits all in-state students.

The final bill largely eliminated the differential tuition rate that individual universities traditionally sought on top of the state-set rate. It also eliminated an annual cost-of-living increase to keep tuition from automatically rising and reigned in the cost of pre-paid college plans.

The tuition-cutting measures appealed to Republican lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott, who signed it June 9. It takes effect along with a slew of other legislation on Tuesday, July 1.

Pioquinto already had been spared more expensive tuition while she earned her associates' degree at SPC. She was in a program known as Early College, which provides a free two-year degree to highly motivated students as they finish their high school requirements.

But she was worried about what she would pay in the future.

“A lot of financial stress has gone away,” she said. “Tuition isn't such a huge worry any more, and I can continue to pursue my education.”

Pioquinto may have been a little off in her calculation. Florida Poly lists out-of-state tuition at about $21,000 and the final amount could fall further with recalculations – but her point was well taken.

Both Pioquinto and a fellow SPC student, Jose Flores, are children of illegal immigrants. Flores had been paying as much as $1,200 for a three-credit course as he has pursued an associate's degree one class at a time at SPC; in-state students pay $350-$450 for the same course.

Flores, who intends to enroll at the University of South Florida to study computer and graphic design, echoed concerns about the stress over tuition costs.

“Thanks to this bill, I will have the opportunity to continue my education and be able to become somewhat successful,” he said. “I will no longer be stressing myself for not having enough money for my tuition.”

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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