Colorado is getting close to letting undocumented immigrants attend college at in-state tuition rates.

A Democratic Senate committee voted 6-3 Thursday to allow Colorado residents who are undocumented to pay in-state tuition rates, instead of paying as out-of-state students, which could be two or three times more expensive.

The change would be a dramatic turnaround for a state where lawmakers less than a decade ago barred undocumented immigrants from receiving any non-emergency state benefits.

This year's tuition bill is thought likely to become law because Democrats took control of both chambers of the Legislature. Latinos last year made up an estimated 14 percent of Colorado's vote, the highest-ever turnout for the group.

Immigrant tuition proposals for Colorado's growing population of college-age immigrants had languished in the state Legislature for years. For the last two years, tuition measures were blocked by the GOP-controlled House. In other previous attempts, the bill failed because of Democratic opposition, but the party has unified its support for the bill.

Last year, immigrant advocates tried to sell Republicans on a compromise measure setting up a new tuition rate somewhere between in-state and out-of-state rates, but Republicans balked.

This year, the Democratic tuition bill drops the compromise and would allow undocumented immigrants who attend Colorado high schools to receive full in-state rates. More than a dozen young Latinos packed a Senate Education hearing room to plead for in-state rates.

One of them stressed her identity as a Coloradan.

"I was brought to the United States when I was 4 months old," said Alexa Bailon, 17, of Denver. "I'm used to the crazy and sunny mile-high weather. I'm still devastated over the Broncos' loss."

The tuition measure would require undocumented immigrants receiving in-state tuition to pursue citizenship.

That would include students participating in a "deferred action" program started by President Barack Obama.

Unlike last year's tuition bill, the one pending in the 2013 Legislature would not give Colorado schools the option of not granting undocumented immigrants in-state rates if they're qualified residents. Legislative analysts predicted the bill would bring in about $2 million next year in additional tuition from about 500 new students.

The stronger tuition bill attracted the first positive vote from a Republican senator. Sen. Owen Hill, of Colorado Springs, joined five Democrats on the committee.

"We've got a moral duty to break down barriers that government imposes," Hill said after the vote.

Other Republicans remained skeptical. Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, told one student at the hearing that tuition for undocumented immigrants won't fix the nation's larger immigration problem.

"We are way behind on getting you what you really deserve, and that is citizenship," Marble told the student.  

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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