International incident: Kiddie tuition freaks foreign scholars

"I couldn't sleep at night," was the reaction of a Chinese scientist at UVA when he heard that Albemarle County wanted to charge tuition exceeding $6,000 annually to students who couldn't establish legal residency in the county.

The news hit UVA's international community like a slap because most of its foreign students and scholars come to the university on visas that expressly prohibit the establishment of legal residency.

At least one researcher was ready to pack his bags, and others were reconsidering their decision to come to UVA when news of the tuition charge began to circulate. The county calls the panic that spread through the university a misinterpretation that was "blown out of proportion."

But for nearly a week, The Hook was unable to get an answer from the county on what exactly its policy was on charging tuition.

Paul Babitts, who works in the International Studies Office and sponsors visas for foreigners who come to UVA, first got wind of the tuition charge when a Taiwanese doctor enrolling his two children in Albemarle County schools, was told he had to pay $34.55 a day for each child.

On October 29, Babitts sent an email to the international community to warn that parents who couldn't establish legal residency would be subject to the tuition charges effective immediately.

"I thought I'd have to quit the program and move somewhere else for another graduate program," says the Chinese scientist, who requested that his name not be used. He, his wife, and daughter live on a $1,200 monthly stipend. With $600 for rent, $300 for insurance, and the remaining $300 earmarked for food, "There's no way I could afford the tuition," he says.

The scientist, who's been here for two years and expects to be here at least another two, says he called the county and was told the policy affected only those here short-term– from three to six months.

"This is not anything particularly new," says Mike Struiksma, the county's assistant superintendent of support services. "It's been in place for a while to comply with state and federal immigration law."

Struiksma defines short-term as anyone here for less than the school year. Those individuals must petition the school board for permission to attend county schools and are charged tuition at the per diem rate on a case-by-case basis.

"A lot of things got stirred up because of miscommunication," says Struiksma. "An individual sent out an email as if every foreign person was subject to the tuition."

Babitts, who sent such an email, refuses to accept responsibility for the miscommunication, and says it never would have happened if the county "hadn't sprung this policy on people from China without telling us." And when he called the county to find out about the tuition, "They said they hadn't worked out the policy," he says.

By November 1, school board members were hearing from confused constituents. Struiksma emailed the board, calling the misunderstanding a "fiasco."

"I think the panic came from people who've been here two to three years being told they'd have to start paying," Struiksma told The Hook.

Struiksma, who's new on the job, says he called his predecessor, Frank Morgan, and learned that tuition has been charged in the past. It also applies to students who move from Albemarle County but want to finish their senior year here.

However, Babitts says this was the first time he'd heard about it and because he deals so closely with foreign visitors, "I think I would have heard about it if it were not new."

The majority of international students currently at UVA, about 1,500 undergraduate and grad students, are enrolled on F visas. About 350 mostly post-doctoral students come here on J visas, and those are more likely to have children, according to Babitts.

"Our concern is if the county charges tuition, it could affect the university's ability to attract people," says Babitts. "If it costs $6,000 a year to send your kid to a public school, and you have two or three children, people start yelling."

Linda Mikell in the Carter Immunology Center echoes that concern. "We're trying to do international, cutting edge research," she says. "I understand where the county is coming from in that they have to spend more money if a child doesn't speak English. It's a double-edged sword for the university and the county."

Babitts understands how misunderstandings about immigration policy can occur. "The world of visas is so incredibly complex," he says. "When mistakes are made, it's not surprising."

Charging tuition to nonresidents is allowed under Virginia law, says Struiksma. But he notes some conflict between the interpretation of county, federal immigration, and state law, and says the county may request an opinion from the state's attorney general.

The City of Charlottesville has no comparable practice of charging tuition based on immigration status, according to director of human resources W.T. Lewis. The only tuition the city charges is $500 for kids from out of the district who are allowed in on a space-available basis.

That means residing in Charlottesville may be one option for short-term scholars with families who want to skirt Albemarle's $34.55-a-day tuition. Or perhaps the university will have to come up with an Albemarle County scholarship fund. As a last resort, foreign visitors can console themselves that $35 a day may still be a bargain compared to some of the local $12,000-a-year private schools.