An Illinois grant that is supposed to cover tuition and fees for veterans who attend public colleges or universities in their home state is experiencing a major shortfall this spring, preventing the institutions from receiving reimbursements for many of the students they enroll.
The Illinois Veterans Grant is an entitlement for those who have been on active duty for at least one year. The state hasn't funded the grant program at a level that covers the cost of educating its veterans since 2001, and this year poses the most signicant financial problems yet for colleges, which are left to make up the difference.
For this spring semester, a financial shortfall of $13.6 million is expected, according to Sue Kleemann, director of research and planning for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which administers the grant program. Kleemann estimates that the program will only be able to cover 5 percent of the cost this spring -- compared with 50 percent last spring and 78 percent in 2003.
What’s causing this shortfall? Kleemann said it’s the combination of increasing college tuition and flat funding for the veterans grant, which has remained at $19.25 million per year since fiscal year 2002.
The number of veterans claiming the state grants has actually decreased since 1995, most often by a few hundred per year (11,511 in 2005). Kleemann said the commission isn’t sure why the claim requests have waned, though it does expect an increase in future years as more veterans return from war.
One possible reason for the shortfall is that more veterans are choosing to enroll in state universities rather than less expensive community colleges, thus driving up the overall cost of financing the program. Data for the 2006 fiscal year -- which might reveal that trend -- won’t be available until this summer.
The Illinois veterans program can be used along with federal funds from the G.I. Bill, which offers students a monthly stipend that can be used toward any educational cost.
Monique Coleman, president of the National Association of Veterans’ Program Administrators, said she isn’t aware of veterans fund shortfalls being an issue in other states. Many do not offer full tuition programs.
In Illinois, about two-thirds of veterans enroll in community colleges. Some of the colleges are responding to increased veteran enrollment by adding sections to a course or hiring additional faculty, said Michael Monaghan, executive director of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, which represents 38 community college districts and boards.
“That’s when it starts to become costly -- colleges adding students to a section without being reimbursed for [the students],” Monaghan said.
Because many of the veterans are older than traditional undergraduate students, they tend to flock to pre-professional programs that don't have large staffs, Monaghan said. He is an advocate of increasing the funding for the state veterans grants. If funding remains flat, Monaghan said the only option is for colleges to cut from other places.
“The issue isn’t whether the colleges will offer programs [for veterans],” he said. “They will do anything for these students. The issue is how to pay for them and who should be paying for them.”