(CNN) -- Illegal immigrants can qualify to pay cheaper in-state tuition rates at California public universities, the state's Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The California Supreme Court's unanimous decision reversed a ruling by the state Court of Appeals and allowed the state's higher education institutions to continue their policy of allowing certain unlawful immigrants to pay in-state rates. The lower court had ruled that such immigrants, even if they lived and studied in California, should be treated as "nonresidents" when it came to how much they paid to go to these schools.
The Supreme Court decision addressed federal laws, which appeared to restrict some education-related benefits for illegal immigrants, and state laws, which appeared to authorize such people to receive in-state rates if they qualified.
A California state law, which took effect in January 2002, said those "without lawful immigration status" -- if they qualify on other grounds -- can get in-state tuition rates if they have "filed an application to legalize his or her immigration status."
But the plaintiffs in the case pointed to a federal law that stated illegal immigrants cannot qualify "for any postsecondary education benefit" (in this case, lower tuition rates) if other U.S. citizens didn't get the same benefit.
In its decision, the California Supreme Court found that federal law did not trump state law in this case.
U.S. citizens from outside California, it pointed out, could receive in-state tuition as long as they attended high school in California for three or more years and either graduated from a high school or got their GED in California.
The court further stated that illegal immigrants should be treated like anyone from outside California, calling it significant that not all illegal immigrants would qualify for in-state tuition rates, just those who met the criteria.
"We conclude the exemption [from paying full, nonresident tuition rates] is not based on residence in California," the California Supreme Court decision said. "Rather, it is based on other criteria."
The decision applies to 112 community colleges, 33 universities and two independent postgraduate schools in California's public postsecondary education system.
Christine Helwick, general counsel for the California State University system that represents 23 schools that educate almost 433,000 students statewide, applauded the decision.
"[The ruling] appropriately expands access and educational opportunities to all legitimate California high school graduates," Helwick said in a statement. "[California's public university system] continues to advocate that racially and ethnically inclusive college universities better prepare students for the diverse workplace of the future."