DENVER — Monday is the first day of the school year for Metropolitan State University of Denver, a compact, urban campus in the heart of the city’s downtown.
It also signifies the dawn of a controversial new policy for this institution of 24,000. Among the crowd of students who will show up for class next week are dozens of illegal immigrants who, as part of a specially tailored tuition rate, can now qualify for a reduced fee if they live in Colorado.
The new rate, approved by the university’s board of trustees in June, has garnered praise from immigrant rights advocates here who have tried for years to get legislation passed that would allow state colleges to offer discounted tuition to local, illegal immigrant students.
But the policy has also drawn the ire of conservatives who are threatening to sue the university to keep the rate from being put in place and have accused Metro State of openly defying Colorado law.
Stephen Jordan, Metro State’s president, said the board took action after Colorado lawmakers failed to pass a similar tuition proposal this year. “Clearly, from our perspective, these are young people who were brought here of no accord of their own,” he said.
“I think what our board was saying was, ‘Why wouldn’t we want to provide an affordable tuition rate for these students?’ ” he added. “So that they can get a college degree and become meaningful contributors to the economy of Colorado.”
Under the new rate, illegal immigrants will pay $7,157.04 per year at Metro State. That is nearly $3,000 higher than the tuition for legal Colorado students but about $8,000 lower than what out-of-state students pay.
Only those students who attended high school in Colorado for at least three years and received their high school or general equivalency diplomas here are eligible. So far, more than 100 have qualified, university officials said.
Dalia Quezada, 18, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, will start her freshman year at Metro State on Monday.
Ms. Quezada, whose family brought her to the United States when she was 6, said she could not afford college if not for the discount.
“My dream was always to attend a big university,” she said. “But realistically, it was too expensive. But when Metro made the change, it opened up an opportunity. It’s like my dream is becoming a reality.”
Still, in a state where about 20 percent of residents are Hispanic and where the tuition issue generates rancor in the legislature, the new policy has provoked a furor, largely among Republican lawmakers.
On June 20, university officials were called before a hearing of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee to defend their plan.
That same week, Colorado’s attorney general, John W. Suthers, issued a nonbinding legal opinion criticizing the policy.
“The decision by Metropolitan State College of Denver to proceed on its own to create a new tuition category, undeterred by the legislature’s repeated rejection of specific authorizing legislation, is simply not supported by governing law,” Mr. Suthers said in a statement at the time.
According to the Higher Education Alliance, a coalition of Colorado groups that supports the new policy, 13 states offer in-state tuition for students who are in this country illegally. But opponents have defeated similar measures in Colorado six times.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Suthers, a Republican, declined to address Metro State’s tuition rate, saying in an e-mail that the attorney general’s office would not comment on “matters that may potentially be litigated.”
Tom Tancredo, a former Colorado congressman and presidential candidate who now heads the Rocky Mountain Foundation, a conservative research organization, said his group intended to sue the university in the next few months.
Mr. Tancredo, a fierce proponent of tightening immigration laws, said: “There was a proposal to allow this in the legislature. It failed. In its failure, it seems to me that a pretty strong signal was sent that you can’t do this in the absence of law.”
Terrance Carroll, a Metro State board member and former Democratic speaker of the state House of Representatives, said there was always a concern about legal action, but the school remained confident the policy was lawful.
University officials also said they were heartened by President Obama’s executive order deferring deportation of young illegal immigrants who have been in the United States since they were children.
Though the deferral program, which began accepting applications this week, does not directly affect Metro State, advocates hope it will help bolster support to expand the tuition policy to other Colorado colleges.
Sarahi Hernández, 19, who is poised to start her sophomore year at Metro State, said the reduced tuition would allow her to focus on school, rather than worrying about drumming up enough money to enroll.
“It doesn’t mean I won’t have to work,” Ms. Hernández said. “But it will allow me to get my dream going.”