Education Secretary Arne Duncan hailed efforts by some states to give undocumented immigrants the right to pay in-state tuition at public colleges.

As an example, Duncan pointed to Rhode Island, where this fall its Board of Governors for Higher Education unanimously approved in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants starting in fall 2012.

An additional 11 states have laws requiring that colleges offer undocumented students in-state tuition if they meet certain requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

In contrast, four states have laws specifically prohibiting undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition, and two states bar those who are undocumented from attending public secondary schools altogether, the National Conference of State Legislatures said.

They are either going to be taxpayers and productive citizens and entrepreneurs and innovators or they are going to be on the sidelines and a drag on the economy.

- Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Duncan said some of the children of undocumented immigrants came to the United States when they were infants. He said the United States is their home, where they've worked hard in school and taken on leadership roles. For too long, he said, the U.S. policy toward them has been backward.

"They are either going to be taxpayers and productive citizens and entrepreneurs and innovators or they are going to be on the sidelines and a drag on the economy," Duncan said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The topic has been an issue in the GOP presidential primary race, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry taking criticism from rival contenders for supporting a law that allows undocumented immigrant children to receive in-state tuition at Texas universities if they meet certain requirements.

Under the Rhode Island policy, in-state rates will be available only to undocumented immigrants' children who have attended a high school in the state for at least three years and graduated or received a GED. Students will lose their resident tuition unless they commit to seek legal status as soon as they are eligible.

The Pew Hispanic Center has said the number of Hispanic students ages 18 to 24 increased by 24 percent, meaning about 35,000 additional young Hispanics were in college in 2010 compared to a year earlier. It's the largest such increase. Duncan said he was pleased to see the increase and will be monitoring the students to see if they graduate.

Duncan supported the DREAM ACT, which Congress failed to pass last year. That legislation would have allowed young people to become legal U.S. residents after spending two years in college or the military. It applied to those who were under 16 when they arrived in the U.S., had been in the country at least five years and had a diploma from a U.S. high school or the equivalent.

Also on Monday, the Lumina Foundation, which seeks to expand educational opportunities for students beyond high school, announced it will provide $7.2 million over a four-year period to 12 partnerships in 10 states with significant and growing Latino populations. The effort seeks to leverage community leaders across the education, business and nonprofit sector.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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