By Kate Irby – McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Some military service members and veterans are being denied their most well-known government benefit: college tuition coverage.
Ted Spencer, a Navy veteran who grew up in Charlotte, N.C., continued to pay the state income tax during his service. But he was denied the in-state tuition rate at North Carolina State University because military service had taken him to California.
The federal government covers the cost of the $8,000 per year in-state rate, but Spencer needed loans and scholarships to cover the $22,000 out-of-state tab.
“It’s mind-blowing to me that North Carolina – a state that is known for being extremely military friendly and home to the largest military base in the United States – would be so difficult when it comes to military veterans who want to call this state home,” Spencer said.
Belen Gebremichael, the residency director at N.C. State, said the university has little control to which students they grant in-state tuition, since it has to follow state guidelines. Like many states, North Carolina requires students to be both legal residents and physically living in the state to qualify for the in-state rate. It means that military members could be paying income taxes to a state the entire time they are serving, but if they’re physically stationed in another state they may not qualify for lower tuitions.
Legislation introduced in the House of Representatives in February by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and in the Senate in January by Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., would change that by allowing veterans to attend any public college or university at the in-state tuition rate starting Aug. 1, 2014. If schools would not provide the discounted rate, they would lose federal funds from the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which provides funding for service members’ tuition and fees.
“The men and women who served this nation did not just defend the citizens of their home states, but the citizens of all 50 states,” Miller said. “The educational benefits they receive from the taxpayers should reflect that.”
Some universities, however, have expressed concern over the bill, wondering if its timeline is too fast and its impact on their finances too steep.
The timeline is the biggest concern of Lt. Gen. Joseph Weber, vice president of student affairs at Texas A&M University in College Station, because most public schools are not solely in charge of their tuition rates. Most states would have to pass legislation to comply with the federal law. In addition, a board may have to approve the new tuition rates, which would then be implemented at the university.
Since some state legislatures, such as Texas’, only meet every other year, it’s likely they could miss the deadline and be penalized, Weber said.
“At Texas A&M, 100 percent of the veterans would be negatively impacted when only 3.3 percent are currently not receiving in-state rates,” Weber said. He advocated pushing the bill back by a year or two to allow states to comply.
Weber said Texas A&M also has some concerns about the financial impact of the bill. While Texas A&M doesn’t have a high out-of state veteran population, officials wondered about other universities that do. Hundreds or thousands of out-of-state veterans switching to in-state rates would cost colleges millions of dollars at a time most states have been cutting education funding.
Currently, 17 states offer in-state tuition to all veterans, regardless of where they served; seven states offer it with conditions, and 12 states are considering legislation.
Ohio was the first state to pass legislation, in 2009. Dubbed the G.I. Promise, it requires public schools to offer in-state tuition to all troops and veterans.
The state’s largest campus, Ohio State University in Columbus, said it hasn’t experienced any negative effects. Mike Carrell, assistant provost and director of the Office of Military and Veterans Services at Ohio State, said class sizes have dramatically increased since then.
“Our (veteran population) numbers have almost tripled from the fall of 2008 to this year,” he said, saying that both Ohio’s G.I. Promise and the G.I. Bill have contributed to that.
Groups such as the American Association of State Colleges and Universities worry that the bill represents an overreach by the federal government, since determining tuition rates is something states handle. The association also thinks the present language of the bill could have some unintended adverse results, such as slashing current benefits to veterans.
“This bill would not allow any veteran or their dependent enrolled at the public institution to receive G.I. Bill benefits if the institution does not offer in-state tuition to all veterans, thus cutting benefits to our veterans,” said Susan Aldridge, a senior fellow at the Washington-based association.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Student Veterans of America and the American Legion support the legislation. The VFW’s Ryan Gallucci said he wants service members to have somewhere they can go to school at the in-state rate. He said he doesn’t think the bill should have far-reaching consequences, since troops are the only group who can be shut out of in-state tuition rates because of forces beyond their control.
Gallucci said the common problem is that when schools tell service members they don’t qualify for in-state tuition, they just take out loans to pay the difference, instead of looking into other options to pay for school.
“That’s kind of the wrong answer, because when they passed the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill the goal was to provide a free in-state education at the public school of their choice,” he said. “We want them to go somewhere at the in-state rate.”
More than 800,000 veterans benefited from government education funding in 2010, and the federal government spent just under $4.5 billion on veterans in 2009 for education-related expenditures, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
There are other possible fixes pending in Congress, such as putting the private school cap on public schools as well. Service members can get up to $18,000 per year for private school coverage, but public schools are capped at their in-state rate. Schools concerned about switching to in-state tuition for all veterans were more supportive of that idea, but veterans interest groups were not.
Different versions of the bill have been introduced in the House and the Senate; the House version already has 50 bipartisan co-sponsors.