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Maryland spends, on average, a total of nearly $200,000 each to educate its students from kindergarten through grade 12. Obviously, the state has a lot invested in every one of them — and just as obviously, it would be folly to throw any of it away.

Yet that’s precisely what the current rules regarding in-state college tuition rates for children of illegal immigrants seem designed to accomplish. While Maryland students who are U.S. citizens are automatically entitled to reduced rates at the state’s public colleges and universities, those who aren’t must pay out-of-state rates. In principle, the difference can amount to thousands of dollars a year, potentially putting college out of reach for many youngsters.

The issue is expected to be hotly debated in the Maryland General Assembly this year, where state Sen. Victor Ramirez is proposing to extend in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants. Lawmakers need to ask themselves whether it truly makes sense — educational, economic or moral — to spend $200,000 educating a student without regard to immigration status, as required by federal law, then turn around and tell that same student he or she can’t go to college.

What are they supposed to do with the expensive educations the state already has provided — become day-laborers, cooks and janitors?

Although Mr. Ramirez’s bill is called the Dream Act, it would not have the same effect as the failed federal legislation by the same name, which would have provided a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who attend college. That got held up in the increasingly polarized debate over national immigration policy. But this has nothing to do with citizenship, just with the question of whether we want to waste the money we’ve already spent.

The stakes are about more than just whether we’re fair to people who, for the most part, have done everything right to achieve their goals in life: stay in school, study hard, aspire to get a good job and be a productive member of society. It’s also about building the kind of human capital that will allow Maryland to prosper in the future. At a time when both the state and the country can use all the bright college grads they can get, denying children of undocumented immigrants a shot at college is counterproductive. It’s more likely to produce a permanent underclass of unskilled, low-wage workers than the well-educated professionals and entrepreneurs America needs to compete successfully in the global marketplace.

Immigration is the kind of hot-button issue that invites heated debate. But the real issue here is education policy, not immigration. Opponents of extending in-state tuition rates to undocumented students are quick to argue it would cost the state millions of dollars it doesn’t have. But that’s surely an exaggeration, since many students probably would choose to attend lower-priced two-year and community colleges after high school rather than the state’s premier four-year institutions. Even if some of them did choose to go on to earn bachelor’s and advanced degrees, the state would eventually recoup its investment in the form of higher tax revenues.

Children of undocumented immigrants, who find themselves here through no fault of their own, should not be penalized for wanting to share in the American dream. If they’ve worked hard and stayed out of trouble, they should be treated like any other Maryland student who dreams of a college education. It’s time lawmakers recognized that these eager young people are an asset, not a liability to be written off.

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