Veterans vs. Land Grants

Veterans groups and public universities are at odds over federal legislation that would require state institutions to provide recent veterans with in-state tuition.

July 14, 2014

As Congressional lawmakers seek to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of Veterans Affairs Department reform legislation, one provision on the negotiating table has sparked a clash between veterans groups and public universities.

Part of the Senate-passed bill would, in effect, require public universities to offer in-state tuition to any veteran within three years after he or she comes off active duty. It would also extend that benefit to spouses and dependents.

Under the bill, states or institutions that don’t make those changes to their in-state tuition policies would be unable to continue to accept federal veterans educational benefits.

Veterans’ advocates say the provision is needed because of the transient nature of military deployments, veterans often have difficulty meeting the residency requirements that would qualify them to pay the in-state tuition – often a difference of tens of thousands of dollars. Several publicized cases of veterans being denied in-state tuition have prompted many states to change their policies. 

But the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities say the changes will reduce federal funding to their institutions, which are already cash-strapped in the wake of state budget cuts over the past several years.

Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill Yellow Ribbon Program, colleges and universities can enter into an agreement with the VA to fund the gap between a veteran’s GI Bill benefits and the tuition and fees (in excess of the most expensive in-state public university tuition rate). Universities can fund up to 50 percent of that cost and receive a matching federal grant to cover the rest. 

By awarding in-state tuition to veterans, public universities would essentially be picking up the tab for those veterans’ education without any matching federal money.

“We are deeply concerned that the in-state provision for veterans and their spouses and dependents would precipitate the loss of yellow-ribbon educational benefits, even though private nonprofit and for-profit higher education institutions would still retain the yellow-ribbon benefits,” the APLU said in a letter last month to lawmakers negotiating the legislation. The reduction of the yellow ribbon program benefits for public universities would add further financial strain to these institutions. Additionally, as more veterans take advantage of this in-state tuition provision, costs to public universities will further increase.”

The group called for an increase in federal yellow ribbon funding to make up for those expected losses for its institutions.

Veterans groups, however, were riled by the APLU’s opposition to the Senate-passed in-state tuition benefit.

Steve L. Gonzales, assistant director of the American Legion, said that veterans enlist in the military on behalf of the entire country – and their educational benefits on the back end should be equitable across state lines.

He said that the APLU’s emphasis on the cost its members will incur from providing in-state tuition to veterans was misplaced. 

“We are being looked upon as a revenue stream with cutting costs of education,” he said. “That is no different from what some bad actors in the for-profit sector have done.”

Ryan M. Gallucci, deputy director of the National Legislative Service at the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, made a similar comparison.

“Whether your motives are to turn a profit or to balance a state budget, if you’re looking at college-bound veterans only as a source of revenue then you’re looking at this the wrong way,” he said.

Jeff Lieberson, spokesman for the APLU said that the group’s institutions are “very supportive of veterans and we believe that veterans enrich our campuses.” But, he said, institutions are grappling with very real declines in state resources and feel that a decline in federal funding that only affects public universities is unfair.

If lawmakers move ahead with an in-state tuition provision, the APLU said, they should limit the benefit to veterans (not their spouses and dependents) and provide states more time to comply with the new rule, as a separate House-passed bill called for last year.

The APLU also says it has a philosophical objection to the federal government setting in-state tuition policies. States and university systems should be able to set their own in-state tuition policies free of federal interference, it says.

“We believe that individual states should retain their autonomy to determine in-state residency status and the allocation of states’ resources,” the group said. “We urge Congress to take that into consideration as they proceed with this legislation.”

Over the past five years, veterans' groups have convinced some 30 state legislatures or university systems to make it easier for veterans to qualify for in-state tuition. (Active-duty service members, under the Higher Education Act, are entitled to receive in-state tuition wherever they are stationed.)

Gallucci, of the VFW, said that Congress is correct to address in-state tuition for veterans as a national problem.

“When you’re in the military, you’re at the whim of the federal government, but when you come out you’re left back at the whim of a patchwork of state policies,” he said. “To see a concerted effort to dial that back or water down these protections for veterans in the name of revenue generation is really concerning."

The bills are Capitol Hill’s response to the controversy that erupted earlier this year in the wake of reports that veterans died while waiting for appointments at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics. The ensuing public outrage led to the resignation in May of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

The bills are one of a few pieces of legislation that actually stand a chance of passing a largely gridlocked Congress during this election year. The biggest sticking point so far during the negotiations over the legislation has been the cost of the health care provisions.  

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