California may continue to offer in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants who graduate from state high schools, according to a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Assembly Bill 540, approved in 2001, continues to face challenges and has been working its way through the court system. The bill would allow students who graduate from California high schools to pay in-state tuition at community colleges or California State University or University of California campuses.

Students must attend a California high school for at least three years and graduate to qualify for the program, as well as sign an affidavit stating they will apply for legal residency as soon as they become eligible.

According to the Los Angeles Times, 41,000 students took advantage of the program last year, with most of them attending community colleges.

SBCC Superintendent/President Andreea Serban said the ruling is important for public university students who face higher nonresident fees. She said SBCC has 435 students who fall under the AB 540 category out of 20,000.

“For these students, the fact that they can pay tuition on the California-resident level makes an extraordinarily great difference, because obviously they don’t qualify for state or federal financial aid if they’re undocumented,” she said.

There has been hearty debate over subsidizing tuition for noncitizens.

Martinez vs. Regents of the University of California was filed by a group of students who protested that the law didn’t comply with federal immigration laws, and it was upheld by the California Supreme Court last year. The most recent challenge was an appeal filed by the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which stated on its website that “legislative history shows that Congress wanted to make it fiscally prohibitive for states to give in-state tuition or other financial aid to illegal aliens.”

Serban said she believes that educating students so they can become productive members of society is an important mission.

“We look at these young individuals, 18 or 19 and coming out of high schools, their futures shouldn’t be jeopardized because of the actions of their parents,” she said.

At SBCC, California residents pay $36 per credit while nonresidents, including international students, pay $210 per credit. The disparity is even greater at CSU and UC system schools. UCSB students paying in-state tuition were charged $11,686.14 in campus-based fees for 2010-11, while out-of-state and international undergraduate students paid $34,566.13 in fees, according to the Registrar’s Office.

CSU system schools charge nonresidents a $372-per-semester fee in addition to the basic tuition fees all students pay.

Assembly Bill 131, often called “California’s Dream Act,” was passed in the Assembly last week and would allow AB 540 students to apply for scholarships and other kinds of financial aid. Multiple versions of similar federal legislation have failed, but the federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — or DREAM Act — was reintroduced in Congress this year.

Local colleges and school districts hold AB 540 information nights annually and more information can be found at the AB 540 Coalition of Santa Barbara website or through SBCC’s Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success (IDEAS) student club.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.