Texas university says it doesn't have to lower tuition for U.S. citizens

A student works at a cubicle in a library on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill North Carolina
REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
  • Judge said in-state tuition for some immigrants was illegal
  • But he lacked power to lower out-of-state tuition, school argued

(Reuters) - A lawyer for the University of North Texas on Wednesday told a U.S. appeals court that the school could not be forced to lower tuition for residents of other states, even if its policy of offering discounted in-state tuition to immigrants in the country illegally is unlawful.

A three-judge 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in New Orleans heard oral arguments in a conservative group's lawsuit claiming UNT violated federal law by offering benefits to immigrants who live in Texas while denying them to U.S. citizens from other states.

U.S. District Judge Sean Jordan in Sherman, Texas agreed with the Young Conservatives of Texas Foundation (YCT) last April and ordered UNT to charge out-of-state residents about $12,000 less per year, in line with what Texas residents pay.

Wallace Jefferson of Alexander Dubose & Jefferson, who represents the school, told the 5th Circuit on Wednesday that Jordan's ruling amounted to "a federal takeover of the state's tuition policy."

Even assuming that a Texas law allowing UNT to treat immigrants in the country illegally as in-state residents violates federal law, Jordan lacked the power to then force UNT to change its policy with respect to out-of-state students, Jefferson said.

It was not clear how the judges were leaning, but their questioning suggested that they were open to reversing Jordan.

"It seems you're the one asking the courts to rewrite federal law to impose on states the obligation to grant in-state tuition to out-of-state citizens," Circuit Judge Jerry Smith said to Chance Weldon, a lawyer for YCT.

Weldon said he was asking the court to enjoin the Texas law requiring out-of-state residents to pay higher tuition, which would have the effect of equalizing tuition rates as required by the federal immigration law.

UNT, which has more than 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students, has said Jordan's ruling will cost it millions of dollars in revenue that it collects from out-of-state residents.

The school's website says the average annual cost of attendance for a Texas resident living on campus and enrolled full time is $26,554 compared to $38,794 for an out-of-state student.

Smith and the other judges on the panel, Edith Brown Clement and Cory Wilson, all are appointees of Republican presidents.

The case is Young Conservatives of Texas Foundation v. Smatresk, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 22-40225.

For Young Conservatives of Texas Foundation: Robert Henneke and Chance Weldon of Texas Public Policy Foundation

For University of North Texas: Wallace Jefferson of Alexander Dubose & Jefferson; Sandy Hellums-Gomez of Husch Blackwell

Read more:

Texas university can't charge out-of-state residents more than migrants - judge

Texas university's bid to keep treating migrants as in-state residents fails

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.