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Bills to lower vets' tuition face opposition from schools

Jun. 12, 2013 - 11:25AM   |  
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Bipartisan legislation that would force public colleges and universities to charge only in-state tuition rates to troops and veterans — if they want to keep receiving GI Bill payments — is facing strong opposition from schools that could see revenues drop under the proposal.

Two competing proposals are pending before Congress: the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act, which would make schools reduce tuition charges; and the Veterans Education Equity Act, which would increase GI Bill tuition payments for nonresident students.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act on May 8, but the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee has yet to decide which, if any, measure to approve.

Veterans’ groups favor charging in-state tuition to all veterans, as well as for spouses and children using transferred GI Bill benefits.

Ryan Gallucci of Veterans of Foreign Wars said the purpose of the GI Bill is “to offer a free, public education and modest living stipend to eligible veterans, allowing them to treat college as a full-time job without worrying about financial stability.”

That is not the case for about 20 percent of student veterans attending public colleges and universities because the Post-9/11 GI Bill covers only in-state tuition rates, leaving nonresident veterans to cover the difference out of pocket.

“This oversight forces veterans to either drop out or find other ways to pay for college through financial aid programs, full-time employment or amassing student loan debt even when they make a good faith effort to legally reside in a state and attend a public school,” Gallucci said.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities, in a statement provided to the Senate, estimates that the difference between average in-state and nonresident tuition is $8,655 a year. But that difference would represent a drop in revenue for schools if they are forced to charge the lower rates.

Practical problems were also raised by the association because in most states, tuition rates and rules can be changed only by state legislatures. “We do not think it is realistic to expect 40 states to substantially amend their state tuition laws prior to August 1, 2014,” the association statement says, referring to the effective date of the change in the Senate bill.

Robert Norton of the Military Officers Association of America said he hopes Congress does not take too long to decide what to do about in-state tuition rates. “This legislation comes at a critical time when more service members than average will be leaving active service due to the drawdown of our forces and the withdrawal from Afghanistan,” he said.

Norton said it is also important to clarify in the bill that spouses and children are covered because many of them enroll in public college but are not state residents.

The Veterans Affairs Department is not taking sides, but it recognizes problems could arise. “VA cannot predict what reductions in offerings by educational institutions would result from this requirement,” Curtis Coy, VA’s deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity, said of the bill that would force states to lower tuition rates for nonresident veterans.

“In-state tuition rules are set by individual states and are undoubtedly driven by overall fiscal factors and other policy,” Coy said. “While VA is sympathetic to the issue of rising tuition costs, it is difficult to endorse the proposed legislation until we know more about the impact.”

He expressed equal concern about the alternative, under which VA would cover full tuition and fees for all student veterans, including the higher nonresident rates that are currently not paid.

“VA cannot support the proposed legislation,” Coy said, warning it would make GI Bill benefits more complicated for both schools and veterans to understand.

“VA continues to receive complaints from participants regarding confusion about exactly how much they will receive in tuition and fees under the program. This bill would exacerbate that problem,” he said.

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