Letting Down the Soldiers
These are challenging times for members of today’s military. Not only are servicemen and women called upon for extended combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, some on the home front are being asked to lengthen their careers or return to active duty from the Reserves.
Given the sacrifices that they are being asked to make, it is disturbing that many military families can’t seem to get fair treatment on tuition at state colleges and universities.
In Virginia, a state legislative committee recently rejected a measure designed to improve the quality of life for military employees and their families who are stationed in the Commonwealth. Introduced by Del. Viola O. Baskerville, the bill included a provision to extend in-state tuition benefits at public colleges and universities to active-duty members of the armed services, their spouses and dependents. Many of these military service members and their families are either stationed in Virginia for a period that is too short to qualify for residency or they move so often that they prefer to keep their residency in either their state of birth or state where they plan to eventually return.
Those who opposed the bill generally cited fiscal concerns, but the impact in terms of a total state budget would be miniscule.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the question of whether in-state tuition is made available to military families, the current answer is a patchwork quilt of different policies from state to state when, pardon the pun, a uniform policy should be in order.
In 2002, a U.S. Army-formed working group examined the in-state tuition policies of states and found that most, but not all, provide in-state tuition rates to military families when they are stationed in state.
The working group recommended an "ideal" in-state tuition policy that would provide:
- in-state tuition for service members and their families in the state of legal residence;
- in-state tuition for military and family in the state of assignment; and
- continuity for the duration of a student’s degree program once a student has started (even if his or her parent is reassigned to a base in another state or outside the country).
A slim majority of states, 26 in all, have adopted all three components of the recommended policy. In 18 others, in-state tuition is available to both military residents and assignees, but continuity of the benefit, once started, is not always available. And in five states -- Massachusetts, Vermont, Michigan, Indiana and South Dakota -- policies are left up to individual public colleges and universities to decide, creating uncertainty and stress for military families.
That leaves only one state, Virginia, which as a matter of policy does not offer assigned military families the opportunity for in-state tuition at any public college or university. This situation deserves special scrutiny because Virginia ranks No. 2 in the nation when it comes to military dollars invested, trailing only California. Military bases are a key part of Virginia’s economy, with spending exceeding $34 billion a year and 208,000 people employed at 147 installations.
Doesn’t it seem odd that, of all the states in the top 10 for military investments, only Virginia does not follow all three of the recommended guidelines?
Six of the top 10 states in military investment -- Texas, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, Connecticut and Washington -- have changed their policies within the past two years, in order to comply with the recommended guidelines. Two other highly ranked recipients of military investment, Florida and Arizona, were already in compliance with the recommended policies. The largest state in terms of military investment, California, follows all three guidelines, though its continuity program is weak, offering only one year of in-state tuition after reassignment out of state.
The men and women of our armed forces risk their lives in service to our country. These families should not be asked to bear a greater economic burden in educating their children than their civilian neighbors across town.
Now is the time for all states, especially Virginia, to adopt a consistent, three-pronged policy that would mandate in-state tuition for military families, as well as offer continued in-state tuition once higher education has begun. This seems the least we can do back on the home front for the millions of men and women who are serving our country in uniform.
James A. Boyle is president of College Parents of America, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to empowering parents to best support their children on the path to and through college.Â Headquartered in Arlington, Va., College Parents of America reaches more than 25,000 current and future college parents.