Instate tuition: lessons in implementation

Every year for the past five years, I have fielded several requests from immigrant students who are attempting to enroll in college under the provisions of Kansas’ instate tuition law.

Every year, I have to help them advocate for themselves to ensure that the law is implemented as it should be, and every year I am reminded why social work advocates’ work is far from over when the legislation is signed. The problems students encounter are pretty routine now–a new admissions officer who hasn’t been properly trained, a rogue somewhere in the university system asking for unnecessarily intrusive status information, breakdown in communication between different entities within a university system. For the most part, Kansas colleges and universities have done an excellent job implementing the law, and, with relatively few exceptions, the failures we see today are the result of inadequate resources/oversight or misinformation, not intentional policy sabotage. But, to a student who’s just trying to enroll in college like his/her peers, and who’s afraid and overwhelmed and confused, these failures can mean the difference between academic success and frustrated resignation.

So that’s where social work advocates can help. I coach students on the questions to ask, on how to answer intrusive inquiries, on the documentation to provide, on where to appeal adverse decisions. When necessary, I make some phone calls to people with the authority to resolve the problem. And I try to use each of these situations as a learning opportunity for how we can make the process smoother and more student-friendly every year.

In honor of the kids who are brave enough to point out when something’s not right and all of the public servants who have worked hard to get it right, I share these lessons learned in policy implementation, over the past five years. Keep in mind that this particular case of implementation is probably slightly more problematic than most, given both the highly politicized nature of the legislation (and, therefore, public scrutiny) and the unfamiliarity of the agents in question (university admissions folks) with the subject matter (undocumented students, with whom they had had virtually no prior contact). Add in the fear on both sides of the consequences of getting something wrong, and it’s rather remarkable we haven’t had more problems. But, still:

  • Build strong relationships with the ultimate arbitrers. I worked closely with the Kansas Board of Regents on the legislation, and, together, we were totally committed to the policy’s success. We identified likely problem spots together, and we collaborated on documents that would advise those in charge of implementation of the steps to comply with the legislation. We kept in very close communication for those first two fall semesters, and I still call them sometimes when I can’t resolve a problem at the university level.
  • Be public in your oversight of the implementation. The Board of Regents allowed me to come to the first meeting where admissions officers were advised of the new law, and they not only announced their strong support (setting a firm signal that compliance was expected) but also introduced me as an advocate who was available to answer questions but would also be helping students and families navigate the law. I believe that seeing me and knowing that I would communicate regularly with the KBOR helped keep some folks honest in those early years.
  • Communicate with your target population of beneficiaries. We used Spanish media, high school counselors, and traditional and guerrilla marketing techniques to spread awareness of the legislation, and we included contact information for those encountering implementation problems. The fact that I still get phone calls and emails from students, two years after leaving that job, is testament to the depth of those relationships and students’ trust that a ‘no’ didn’t necessarily mean ‘no’.
  • Train people to self advocate. Whenever possible, I advise students on how to resolve the problem themselves, rather than just making a call to ‘make it go away’. Granted, I’m dealing with highly articulate and bright college-bound students whose capacity for self-advocacy is high, but they’re also 18-year-old kids, rather scared about the sensitive nature of their immigration status. They’re almost always effective, though, once we’ve rehearsed how they’re going to handle the situation, and, in the process, the university learns to see them in a different light and they start school empowered.
  • Keep records. I note every time a student or parent contacts me with a complaint: which school, name of the individual admissions officer, nature of the complaint, any documentation of it. This has helped to identify patterns, including some specific ‘problem’ individuals, and strengthened our hands on the few occasions when we had to ask for assistance from regulatory bodies.
  • Reward successful implementers. We have bent over backwards applauding individuals and institutions that have been successful in promoting the legislation, recruiting students, and training personnel. We do free publicity, of sorts, for them, talking them up with colleagues and in the community. Carrot and the stick, you know?
  • Never, ever, ever give up. I’m not afraid to show up at an admissions office with a copy of the legislation in my hand and a student by my side. I’ve had legislators whose districts include the university make phone calls asking why the problem can’t be resolved. I even sat for three hours once waiting for a high-ranking university official to give a student and me a meeting. As in all kinds of advocacy, sometimes securing implementation means proving oneself tenacious enough and loud enough that you can’t be ignored.

    What examples of implementation do you have to share–both successful and problematic? What has worked for you in this advocacy? What lessons would you share?

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