There is always an incentive to break the law. Speeding saves time, Ponzi schemes make money, and ripping the tag off a mattress in violation of California regulations is eminently satisfying. But an existing incentive to break the law isn’t a reason for courts to excuse unlawfulness.
Federal law stipulates that universities cannot charge illegal immigrants a lower “in-state” tuition rate while charging American citizens from other states the higher “out-of-state” rate. The University of North Texas rakes in $5.7 million per year by violating this law, charging its out-of-state students nine times more than the in-state tuition rate offered to foreign national illegally residing in Texas.
Though that $5.7 million is less than 0.7% of its massive yearly revenue, UNT claims that it’s simply too broke to comply with federal law. Before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, UNT argued that charging lawful tuition rates would harm its bottom line, forcing the University to “make downward budgetary adjustments” that would decrease its educational and operational efficacy.
First and foremost, “I make money violating the law” isn’t a reason anyone should be allowed to continue violating the law. Second, less than one-tenth of 1% of UNT’s yearly revenue is an infinitesimally small price to pay for justice. Finally, that tiny fraction of UNT’s income reflects a huge financial burden on the out-of-state students affected by UNT’s illegal tuition scheme. These students came to Texas to learn, mature, and maybe even settle down here, and they’ve been met with the furthest thing from Texan hospitality: a system that asks them to pay nine times the lawful tuition rate so that UNT isn’t inconvenienced by re-budgeting.
This problem isn’t limited to UNT. An amicus brief filed by several educational and political advocacy groups noted that five other large public Texas universities also charge illegally high tuition to out-of-state students, and that forcing these schools to abide by federal law would result in financial losses. The brief claims that the University of Texas at Austin stands to lose the most of any university—just over $30 million, according to data from 2020. Just for perspective, that’s less than 0.1% of UT’s $31.9 billion endowment (billion, with a “b”), and $4 million less than the school pays its head football coach.
But the amounts don’t really matter. If every single cent in the budgets of every Texas college came from illegal tuition schemes, then every one of those schools deserves to lose every last cent. Selective enforcement of the law is tyranny, and selective enforcement based on revenue size is even more pernicious.
If equality before the law means anything, it means that you can’t buy your way around the rules that govern everyone else. It means that universities with millions (or billions) of dollars in the bank can’t circumvent federal law at the expense of their students. There may be profits to be made from illegal behavior, but those profits aren’t a reason to give big universities a pass.