The measure would expand on a state law enacted a decade ago making illegal immigrants eligible for in-state tuition provided they sign an affidavit promising to pursue legal status in the future.
Republican Sen. Barbara Bailey of Oak Harbor, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, declined after the hearing to state her position on the bill or to say whether it is likely to advance from her panel.
Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, who also sits on the panel, posed for photos after the hearing with young minorities who had turned out in favor of the measure. He said he supports the bill giving it a likely majority in the committee but added that Bailey will decide whether to put it up for a committee vote.
"I think it's the right thing to do, so we'll see," Tom said.
The bill advanced from the state House earlier this month with Democrats united in favor and Republicans split.
Bill proponents say embracing young people in the country illegally is both the decent thing to do and will ultimately make Washington state more prosperous.
"We have kids that are in our communities that are going to continue to be here and either have the opportunity to participate fully in the life of our community or not," said Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, who testified in support of the bill. "I think it's better if they do. We're all going to succeed together or not succeed together. We need all hands on deck."
Those opposed to the measure argue that it is unfair for taxpayers to foot the bill for people here illegally, even if those being helped are otherwise worthy.
"Despite the hardship stories, I believe it remains the public servant's sworn duty to dedicate policy to the general welfare rather than to private ease," said Craig Keller, an anti-illegal immigration advocate from Federal Way.
Bill proponents say each year, about 550 college students in Washington state fail to offer proof of legal residency. They estimate that number would grow by 20 to 30 percent if the financial aid measure is approved. Using those numbers, costs in the next biennium would likely be between $3.3 million and $3.5 million.
Many of the students testifying before Bailey's committee were not legal residents, but they were joined by those who were.
"America is the only home that we know, and this country is the country that we most want to dedicate our life and our talents to," said Lummy Lin, a student at the University of Washington born of immigrant Chinese parents. "The only difference between an undocumented student and me is the circumstance of our birth."