Prescott College’s Fund For Immigrants Is A Triumph Of Student Activism

By Noah Berlatsky

In mainstream media, college students are frequently presented as censorious totalitarian scolds, demanding trigger warnings on their lunch menus and forming mobs if anyone dares to try to assign them Hemingway. Student activism is portrayed as dangerous, wrong-headed, authoritarian, and ineffectual.

When you look at specific examples of college activism, though, they don’t conform to the stereotype. At Prescott College in Arizona, for example, a recent campaign demonstrates that student activism is often collaborative, democratic, and effective. After a majority of students signed a petition, the college instituted a $30 fee to support a Freedom Education Fund, which will provide full scholarships to undocumented immigrants who want to attend Prescott.

The scholarship was the brainchild of Miriel Manning, a queer student in the Masters of Social Justice and Human Rights program at Prescott. Manning, who uses the pronoun “they,” came up with the idea during their internship at Scholarships A-Z, an organization focused on helping undocumented students get funding for college. The Prescott scholarship was initially going to be funded more conventionally, through fundraising and alumni outreach, but Prescott activists were inspired by Loyola students’ decision earlier this year to add a fee for a scholarship aimed at undocumented immigrants.

“What really built the scholarship to the scale it is now, was our capacity as students to organize through the Social Justice and Human Rights masters program and collaborate with local community,” Manning told me by email. “The mission of Prescott College is social justice and the environment, and the Freedom Education Fund is an important step towards a vision of Prescott College as an explicitly anti-racist institution that prioritizes students who are pushed out of academia.”

Emily Farris, a professor of political science at Texas Christian University, told me by email that there are around 50,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools every year. The Prescott scholarship is especially important because those undocumented high school graduates face serious barriers in attending universities or colleges.

Many undocumented immigrants are the first ones in their families to attend college, which means that they are unfamiliar with negotiating the application process and the financial aid process. Undocumented immigrants also often attend poorly-performing secondary schools, and disproportionately come from families with low incomes, an especially serious problem given skyrocketing tuition costs.

Those costs are even more burdensome because undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for federal grants or scholarships. Currently, 18 states ensure undocumented resident students in-state tuition rates at state schools. However, Arizona is one of three that specifically prohibits granting in-state rates — two other states, Alabama and South Carolina, forbid undocumented students from attending state universities at all. Given such restrictions, Farris says, “opportunities like this one at Prescott College are essential to broadening access for undocumented immigrant students in higher education.”

In the news, student activists are almost always at odds with administration. In this case, however, Prescott’s administration has embraced the scholarship plan. Executive vice president and provost Paul Burkhardt told me by email, “At Prescott College, students don’t just read about, write about, and hope for a better world, they learn to make change happen by doing it. The Prescott College mission centers interdisciplinary, experiential learning for social justice and the environment; like all our graduates, Miri and the Freedom Education Fund make real our mission.”

Burkhardt emphasized that the fee had been approved by a majority of students, and that elected student representatives on the student union board had been involved in making sure that students were informed and consulted. Though the fee is automatically added, students can opt out if they wish.

The plan was adopted in a democratic decision by the student body — a fact which has been downplayed in conservative press accounts. Fox News’ headline reads, “Arizona college imposes fee to fund scholarship for illegal immigrants,” which makes it sound like the school is some sort of liberal hegemon handing down illegitimate dictats from on high. The article quotes Andrew Kloster of the Heritage Foundation declaring with great outrage: “It is irresponsible for Prescott College to offer this privilege at the expense of other students” — glossing over the fact that those other students are the ones who petitioned for the fee.

Prescott’s students worked with the administration to craft a policy with support of student representatives and a majority of the student body. But their activism is still presented as illegitimate and totalitarian. Despite the pretense, opposition to student activism doesn’t have anything to do with concerns about free speech or creeping authoritarianism, Fox is opposed to the student plan simply because Fox is opposed to treating undocumented immigrants with respect and dignity.

In this case, the caricature of intolerant students seems particularly off base. Students at Prescott, responding to and working with undocumented immigrant activists, decided they wanted their school to be more inclusive. Arizona has become synonymous with virulent and often brutal anti-immigration politics. In contrast, Prescott’s students have opted to be part of a community which treats immigrants as neighbors and peers, rather than as invaders.

Student activists are working to change the world — which is, no doubt, why so many are determined to dismiss and discredit them. But despite Fox’s dire warnings, other students at other schools have found Loyola and Prescott’s actions inspiring. “Currently at Mizzou, Illinois Institute for Technology, and others there are fee campaigns.” Manning said. “We’ve already had more students reach out to us saying they want to do a similar initiative at their own school. This is just the beginning.”

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Lead image: flickr/Jeff Djevdet

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