A federal court ruling in Virginia that allows colleges to deny admission to illegal immigrants could spur public debate over the issue in Nevada, a university official said.
Nevada Chancellor Jane Nichols said last week's ruling by U.S. District Judge T. S. Ellis III in Alexandria won't have any legal bearing on policies in this state unless it reaches the U.S. Supreme Court.
Still, Nichols said it's a problem all states are facing.
"This is certainly an issue in Nevada, where we have many children who were brought to this country by their parents when they were minors and for whom this is the only country they have ever known," Nichols told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
"We've even had valedictorians from our high schools who are not legal citizens, so we have worked hard to provide access to college for those young students."
Nevada higher education institutions require proof of legal residency status or proof of citizenship from out-of-state students, but not from students who are recent Nevada high school graduates, Nichols said.
"So its not a wide-open door that anyone can walk through, we just honor our Nevada high school graduates," she said.
Nichols could not estimate how many of those graduates have been illegal immigrants. But she said children of illegal immigrants shouldn't be punished because their parents broke the law by entering the country illegally.
"In Nevada, we have worked hard to protect the children who came here through no choice or fault of their own to have access to a life in which they can educate and support themselves," Nichols said.
"Those young people will be living in Nevada, and the question is will they be in minimum-wage jobs, on welfare or in prison, or will they be productive tax-paying citizens?"
Children of illegal immigrants also can qualify to receive a $10,000 scholarship under a state program that went into effect in 2000, Nichols said.
"This is a debate that surfaced a few years ago, but there is nothing in the law that created the Millennium Scholarship that requires U.S. citizenship to qualify," she said.
"It does require students to have lived in the state for two years and to have graduated from a Nevada high school."
Millennium scholars also must graduate with at least a 3.0 grade-point average to qualify for the scholarship program, which is financed by the state's share of the national tobacco settlement.
Debbie Feemster, the Washoe County School Districts director of equity and diversity, said it would be unfair to deny children of illegal residents a higher education.
"I have always told my students that if you work hard and achieve your goals, get good grades and good SAT scores, the school will help you get into a university," said Feemster, a former middle and high school principal.
"I'm sure some of those students were illegal immigrants, so that's a dilemma for me."
Illegal immigration is a political issue, but educating the children of illegal immigrants is a social obligation, she said.
"We have a responsibility to educate all students, and who are we to deny students who have earned excellent grades the opportunity to further their education?" Feemster said.
"We all suffer when quality students in our community are prevented from going on to higher education and realizing their potential."