Jairo Robles didn't even bother applying to the University of Tennessee system after graduating from Nashville's McGavock High School in 2008.
"It's a well-known fact within the immigrant community that, for example, UT-Knoxville doesn't let undocumented students in," said Robles, who came to the United States with his family from Guatemala when he was 11.
"It's like a ban, even though they say it isn't. You know that if you apply, you're not going to get in."
Robles instead attends Volunteer State Community College — part of the Tennessee Board of Regents system, which takes a different view of undocumented students.
The split between Tennessee's two systems of public universities has attracted a new spotlight as state lawmakers consider legislation that would extend in-state tuition to high school graduates who are not legal U.S. citizens.
Tennessee law is silent on whether students who arrived in the United States as children and lack documentation can attend the state's public colleges — leaving the university systems to make the calls.
Schools affiliated with the University of Tennessee system "do not knowingly accept" undocumented students, according to system officials. This includes campuses in Martin, Chattanooga, Tullahoma and Memphis in addition to the state's flagship university in Knoxville.
But the Tennessee Board of Regents — which includes Middle Tennessee State University, Austin Peay State University and the University of Memphis and the state's community colleges — places students who lack documentation in its pool of out-of-state applicants.
Undocumented students who live in Tennessee are therefore accepted at TBR schools, but they are not given the more affordable in-state tuition. On this front, TBR cites the 2012 Eligibility Verification for Entitlements Act, which requires institutions verify that anyone getting a "state public benefit" is a U.S. citizen.
It was a desire to better "understand the admissions processes" of the two systems that led House Education Chairman Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, to ask last month that voting be delayed on HB1992. The bill would add Tennessee to a list of 19 states that offer in-state tuition to undocumented high school graduates.
Brooks requested a report from the two systems, which both say they are deferring to lawmakers' will on the bill. The House Education subcommittee is slated to take up the legislation again today.
UT reviews practices
UT and TBR officials say they don't have "policies" prohibiting the admission of undocumented immigrants. UT also says it interprets the Eligibility Verification for Entitlement Act the same way as TBR.
As part of UT's admissions process, however, applicants are asked questions related to citizenship, as well as the applicant's primary language, federal income tax information and place of birth.
"If the information/documentation is not provided, the applicant is not admitted to the university. Further, if the information provided reveals the applicant is undocumented, the applicant is not admitted," UT spokeswoman Gina Stafford said in an email.
TBR schools ask similar questions. But at this same point in the process, undocumented students are simply considered out-of-state applicants.
UT officials say the in-state tuition legislation has prompted it to "re-evaluate" those practices. Moreover, if the in-state tuition bill were approved by the legislature and signed into law, they say it would signal that the "public policy of the state of Tennessee" is that undocumented students are eligible for admission.
"We don't have an official policy, but our practice has been that we don't admit them," said Chuck Cantrell, associate vice chancellor of marketing and communication at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "It's something that probably gets debated a lot at the system level. We'll certainly do whatever the General Assembly and the Tennessee Board of Trustees decide to do."
In 2011, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that UT then also was revisiting the issue and that the system hadn't admitted undocumented immigrants since 2007.
Need for uniformity
Immigrant advocates have opposed UT's stance.
"Since state law does not prohibit public universities from admitting undocumented students, it seems that UT bans them by choice," said Eben Cathey, communications coordinator for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. He pointed to Gov. Bill Haslam's push to increase the state's graduation rate to 55 percent by 2025.
"In order to meet our state's 'Drive to 55' goals, our higher education institutions need a uniform policy that makes college possible for all Tennessee students."
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, who is chairman of the education subcommittee and supports extending in-state tuition to undocumented high school graduates, said having two university systems that differ on accepting undocumented immigrants "could be an issue, too."
"That's why I want to keep the conversation alive," White said. "When you have a bill before (the legislature) like this, what it does is it moves the conversation like it's never been done before. ... And if there's something we can work out, we'll work it out."