WASHINGTON -- In passing a compromise piece of legislation aimed at reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Senate on Thursday also approved a new benefit for student veterans and their families.
The proposal, passed on a 91-3 vote, would require public universities that want to continue receiving GI Bill benefits to offer recent veterans in-state tuition. Veterans’ spouses and dependents would also be eligible for the benefit.
The legislation, which was a compromise between House and Senate bills, cleared the House on Wednesday on a 420-5 vote. The in-state tuition provision is only one part of broader legislation that is aimed at reforming veterans' access to health care in the wake of the Veterans Affairs scandal that erupted earlier this year, when it was reported that veterans died while waiting for medical appointments at VA facilities.
Veterans' groups had pushed for the inclusion of the in-state tuition provision, which they said was needed to protect veterans who are "stateless" for the purposes of in-state tuition. Veterans returning from military service often have difficulty meeting the residency requirements that would qualify them to pay in-state tuition.
Some 30 states or university systems have already changed their laws or policies to recognize returning veterans as in-state students for tuition purposes. The new legislation will likely require additional states to change their laws or policies.
Public universities, however, had cautioned that the provision approved Thursday would effectively reduce federal funding to their institutions, which have already faced steep budget cuts in recent years. That’s because institutions would essentially have to pick up more of the tab for veterans’ education without any matching federal money, which they currently receive under the Post-9/11 GI Bill Yellow Ribbon Program when charging out-of-state tuition to veterans.
They also argued that states, not Congress, should set policy about which students are eligible for in-state tuition at public universities.
The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities told Congressional leaders last month that if they were to move ahead with an in-state tuition provision, they should, at a minimum, limit the benefit to veterans and not their spouses and dependents. That policy would mirror a separate bill the House passed last year.
The new measure approved by Congress would require public universities to provide in-state tuition to veterans and their spouse and children within three years of the veteran’s discharge from active-duty. Universities that don't offer the benefit would not be allowed to continue to accept Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
The in-state tuition provision was included in the original Senate-passed bill but not the House legislation. A committee of negotiators from both chambers ultimately included the measure in the final compromise bill.
The measure now heads to President Obama’s desk for his signature.