The Impact of Tuition Increases on Undocumented College Students' Attainment

Dylan Conger and Lesley Turner , April 2015.

The City University of New York (CUNY) system has had a long-standing policy of charging in-state tuition to undocumented students, so long as they graduated from a New York high school or received a GED from the state of New York. But in the fall of 2001, the CUNY Chancellor announced that this policy would not continue in the following spring semester, meaning that undocumented students would be charged out-of-state tuition. As a result, tuition charged to undocumented students enrolled in CUNY’s “senior” colleges more than doubled. After the spring 2002 semester, the tuition hike was reversed by state legislation.

Dylan Conger and Lesley Turner use administrative data from the CUNY system to study the effects of this short-term price shock on vulnerable students. The administrative data provided each student’s citizenship status, including information on whether the student was documented or undocumented, along with other demographic information and information on academic outcomes. The study uses a difference-in-differences methodology, comparing the changes in academic outcomes for the undocumented students who were subject to the price change to the changes in outcomes for documented noncitizens, for whom tuition did not change. Conger and Turner find that the increase in tuition significantly reduced enrollment. Over the long-run, undocumented students who had been enrolled for more than a year before the shock experienced only modest effects: fewer of them enrolled in the spring semester, but many of those who did not enroll would have eventually dropped out before earning a degree. In contrast, the cohort of students new to CUNY in the fall of 2001 experienced larger reductions in enrollment and persistence, with their eventual degree completion rate falling by 22 percent.

Within the CUNY population, both documented and undocumented noncitizens generally have less access to resources to invest in human capital than citizens. The paper’s findings demonstrate the important effect that subsidies for public educations can have on educational attainment for undocumented students and most likely for other low-income students with limited resources available to absorb price shocks.

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