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In-state tuition for GI Bill sparks debate

Apr. 11, 2013 - 05:11PM   |  

Veteran service organizations and some lawmakers expressed support for a bill to push public colleges and universities to offer in-state tuition rates to all veterans, but university advocacy groups, as well as the Veterans Affairs Department, are not on board.

All parties praised the goal of HR 357: to prevent vets from being charged higher, out-of-state rates that the Post-9/11 GI Bill won’t fully cover, and from being saddled with student loan debt as a result.

Yet during an Thursday hearing of a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s economic opportunity panel, doubts were raised about how the bill would reach that goal.

Any school that doesn’t offer in-state tuition for all vets would be ineligible to receive GI Bill money under the proposal. Such a mandate wouldn’t just punish schools but also could hurt vets whose preferred schools were barred from accepting Post-9/11 benefits, some witnesses said.

Vets who may have lost their state residency status when the military required them to move would have to choose between settling for their second-choice schools or finding another way to pay for college, likely including loans.

“The in-state tuition requirements vary across all 50 states, and within schools, and one of our concerns is: Could, or might, or how, would we help define a program that would not limit choices to our veterans?” said Curtis Coy, a VA deputy undersecretary.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who is sponsoring the bill, told the subcommittee, said “federal dollars usually come with requirements,” and universities, school boards and state legislatures should make the effort to comply with his proposed requirement.

“While it may be difficult to change residency requirements, it’s an opportunity for the appropriate government bodies, and those bodies that determine tuition rates, to recognize the contribution of the 1 percent who defend the 99 percent,” Miller said.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers the full cost of tuition at a public university at in-state tuition rates, but not the additional money such schools charge out-of-state students. The difference between the two rates is not small: $8,655 was the average cost of in-state tuition in fees at public universities in the 2012-13 school year, but that figure jumped to $21,706 for out-of-state students, according to the College Board.

Under Miller’s bill, schools would have to pay the full difference between the in-state and out-of-state rates for vets.

Michael Dakduk, who spoke in favor of Miller’s proposal alongside representatives of Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, drew a parallel between this situation and the debate over private, for-profit colleges.

The for-profit sector has come under intense scrutiny in Washington from critics who accuse many such schools of pursuing service members mainly to rake in profits, viewing them as “dollar signs in uniform.”

“Now we have an instance where public universities … are looking at veterans as dollar-signs as well,” Dakduk said.

Susan Aldridge, a senior fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, described public institutions as in a financial bind, with state governments across the country sharply cutting the state dollars that help subsidize in-state tuition. In addition, it is often those same state governments — and not the schools themselves — that have the power to set public university tuition rates and rules, Aldridge said.

As a result, some schools will likely “not have the ability to charge in-state rates, even if they desire to do so,” she said.

During the hearing, the subcommittee also heard testimony on:

• HR 562, a three-month extension of the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, or VRAP.

• HR 631, a congressional overhaul of the transition assistance program for separating service members, which is already in the midst of an overhaul by the Defense Department, Labor Department and other executive-level agencies.

• HR 844, an extension of the deadline for vets who were injured on active duty to enroll in job training and rehabilitation programs, They now have 12 years to enroll; this bill would increase that to 17 years.

• HR 1305, an expansion of eligibility for the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program to include veterans in some VA-subsidized housing programs and to veterans released from prison.

• HR 1316, an outline of the responsibilities of veterans employment and training directors.

• HR 1402, a continuation of funding through 2018 for disabled veterans competing or training for the Paralympic Games.

The economic opportunity panel has scheduled further action on the bills in late April.

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