The unanimous decision by the Board of Governors for Higher Education unanimously came Monday after 3 1/2 hours of debate at a forum attended by hundreds of people.
The board followed the recommendation of Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who said students who lack status as permanent residents "through no fault of their own" deserve the in-state tuition rate. The governor said the measure approved by the board would "improve the intellectual and cultural life of our state while strengthening our workforce and helping our economy."
Victor Capellan, a Central Falls school official, said he was "proud of the board. It took a courageous step, a step in the right direction."
But Raymond McKay, president of the Rhode Island Republican Assembly, said reduced tuition for undocumented students would "reward bad behavior."
McKay said federal law prohibits giving what he called "illegal aliens" the lower tuition.
Julia Cole, who opposed the measure, suggested board members pay tuition for undocumented students.
"Give them your money, but don't take it from us taxpayers and those who can't afford it," she said.
Some critics said the board circumvented the General Assembly, which has rejected in-state tuition for undocumented students for years. Undocumented students pay in-state tuition in a dozen other states, but all of them approved it through legislation.
But a higher education spokesman said the laws authorizing the board to run the public college system allow it to set tuition, including the criteria for those eligible for Rhode Island resident rates.
And the board's Government Relations Committee noted none of the laws in other states giving undocumented students in-state tuition have been struck down by courts, despite legal challenges in Kansas and California.