A bill signed into law by President Obama on Aug. 7, dedicated primarily to overhauling veterans’ health care, also includes a major victory for education advocates.
A provision of the new law seeks to push public colleges and universities to charge all recently separated veterans in-state tuition rates, which are fully covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill, rather than out-of-state rates, which typically cost thousands of additional dollars that the benefit doesn’t cover.
“It’s ... a critical change to education policy that will only improve access for college-bound veterans and ensure lower costs,” said Ryan Gallucci of Veterans of Foreign Wars.
But whether the new law will have such impact remains to be seen.
The measure doesn’t actually force schools to offer vets in-state tuition. Rather, it makes a school’s ability to accept Post-9/11 and Montgomery GI Bill education benefits conditional on that tuition break. Whether a school adopts the out-of-state waiver or opts to forgo GI Bill eligibility is up to the school and its governing bodies.
Veterans advocates and supportive lawmakers conceived the provision as a lever that would force a school to lose out on all GI Bill students if it charged even one eligible GI Bill user an out-of-state rate.
Yet there’s some question as to whether the language of the law actually does that.
It calls for the Veterans Affairs Department to deny use of GI Bill benefits at a school if the tuition rises above in-state rates “for that course for the covered individual.”
Such wording could be interpreted to mean that schools would be ineligible to accept the GI Bill benefits only of students to whom they denied in-state tuition, while remaining eligible to accept the GI Bill benefits of students charged the in-state rates.
That could make it easier for schools to decide against a blanket in-state tuition waiver for eligible GI Bill users and have the inadvertent effect of punishing individual users almost as much as schools.
Gallucci said he thought the wording of the bill could be read either way.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee staffers maintain that the law’s language would have the effect of denying use of any GI Bill benefits at a school lacking the blanket out-of-state tuition waiver, regardless of whether a particular GI Bill user was charged in-state or out-of-state rates.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee pointed Military Times to VA for that question; VA did not respond by press time.
The new law calls for the tuition waiver to apply to veterans who separated within three years of enrolling and served at least 90 days, as well as to eligible dependents using transferred Post-9/11 education benefits.
It takes effect next July 1.
Currently, 24 states have some form of state residency waiver for veterans, and some schools have independently adopted their own such policies in the face of inaction from their states, according to Student Veterans of America.
In the 2013-14 school year, average in-state tuition and fees for public, four-year schools totaled $8,893, according to the College Board. Out-of-state rates averaged $22,203.
Vets using the Post-9/11 GI Bill who are deemed out-of-state could be stuck having to pay the difference. And the mandatory deployments around the country or the world that are inherent in military service can rob vets of the in-state status that they otherwise would have enjoyed.
William Hubbard, SVA’s vice president of government affairs, said he thinks most schools and states will now adopt the residency waiver. And if particular schools do not, vets will have many others to choose from.
“Schools that are smart will adopt this, and the ones that don’t will ultimately ... be hurting themselves,” he said.