As the conversations around boosting educational benefits for veterans gain traction on national and local levels , a multi-million dollar shortfall faced by public colleges in Illinois may present a reason to pause and ask a politically unpalatable question: At what cost? (Or, a more palatable one: To whom?)
Illinois offers a particularly generous educational benefit package for veterans , guaranteeing a waiver of tuition and fees at any state public institution for up to four academic years of undergraduate or graduate study for veterans who have served at least one year of active duty or served for any period in a foreign country during a time of hostilities. But as the costs incurred by colleges waiving their tuition for eligible veterans have skyrocketed with tuition rates, state appropriations used to reimburse the institutions have stayed flat. Increasingly , colleges are facing shortfalls in the hundreds of thousands -- and institutions are no longer keeping quiet about the costs of carrying out the state mandate that for so long had been hidden from veterans, the general student body, and the state representatives who overwhelmingly supported a bill  to fully fund the Illinois Veteran Grant Program and other related programs in March. The bill is now being considered by the State Senate.
“We want to support the veterans, we’ve traditionally been a campus that’s been very welcoming to veterans and we’ll continue to do that. It’s just that it’s financially difficult,” said Billie Jo Hamilton, financial aid director at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She expects the university will face a $1.5 million gap in lost revenue this year due to the tuition waivers after state appropriations are factored in; last year, the institution, with a gap nearing $1.4 million, faced the largest shortfall of any university in the state (according to a statewide report ). "That obviously is revenue we would otherwise use for whatever the campus needs are, so it definitely does has an impact," Hamilton said.
“It’s been a challenge at a time when in general we’re struggling with deferred maintenance issues, we’re struggling with double-digit tuition increases for students to make up for state funding. Eventually we’ve got to pass that on. Since we’re not getting any state funding, guess who gets to cover it? We have to increase tuition to accommodate it.”
A December 2006  report on the various Illinois grant programs for veterans compiled by the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Illinois Community College Board found that between fiscal year 2002 and 2006, the difference between the cost of tuition and fees waived and the amount reimbursed by state appropriations totaled $29.7 million. While the cost of the tuition and fee waivers has increased from $24.6 million in 2002 to $38.1 million in 2006, the state appropriation has stayed constant in that time at $19.25 million (Although, significantly, most other state higher education appropriations decreased during that time).
While there has been a 2.1-percent increase in the number of veterans receiving the grants since 2002, the report attributes the increases in costs largely to mammoth tuition and fee increases: Between fiscal years 2002 and 2006, the average tuition for public universities in Illinois rose by 49.4 percent, while it rose by 33.9 percent at community colleges.
“We’ve absorbed it for so many years but now it’s gotten so huge,” it’s becoming clear that the state cannot indefinitely continue offering this benefit “on the backs of the public institutions,” said Wilma Hjellum, director of financial aid and veterans affairs at Illinois Central College. “If they want to make that [free tuition and fees for veterans] a priority, the funding is there. One of the things they need to do is look at all of the education-related programs ... and decide as a state, what do we want to provide."
“The stage is set now to have those hard discussions.”
No one seems to be publicly considering cutting back the benefits for veterans, described by many as a laudable initiative on Illinois’ part that needs to be supported, not raided. Illinois is one of just a handful of states to offer such generous benefits, said Giacomo Mordente, president of the National Association of Veterans' Program Administrators  and director of veterans' affairs at Southern Connecticut State University. (He added, interestingly, that a similar tuition waiver program in Connecticut in which the costs are borne by the colleges hasn't proven to be particularly controversial at all).
But while no one seems to be advocating actively undercutting Illinois' somewhat unique commitment to its veterans, the administration is advocating a maintenance of the status quo as far as state funding goes. “The funding has been consistent with historic levels," said Justin DeJong, spokesman for Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich's Office of Management and Budget. DeJong added that in 2006 -- a year in which the shortfalls nearly doubled across the state's public colleges and universities -- the full $19.25 million state appropriation was not even used (about $19.23 million was). DeJong said it was difficult to speculate as to why that might be the case.
The Illinois Board of Higher Education has recommended the appropriation for the Veterans Grant Program for the upcoming year remain at its 2002 to 2006 level of $19.25 million. “The budget recommendation that we put forward and the governor puts forward calls for sustaining the current appropriation simply because there are limited resources and some other priorities that the board and others have tried to emphasize,” said Don Sevener, director of external relations at the Illinois Board of Higher Education. “It’s a matter of stretching scarce resources.”
“There are always more demands and good places to spend money than there is money available to spend. This is one of the prime examples. This is obviously a very laudable goal and something that the General Assembly clearly has stated is an important investment, an important initiative to allow veterans to have free access to college,” Sevener said. “On the other hand, there are other needs and program desires and priorities that have to also fit into the equation, including affordability, staff and faculty salaries, and a growing backlog of deferred maintenance on college and university campuses.”
But State Rep. William Black, a Republican lawmaker whose bill, House Bill 479 , would require the governor to include in his recommended budget an amount sufficient to provide reimbursements for the various veterans grant programs, said that, priority or not, right now, someone’s still paying. And, increasingly, that “someone” facing the lion’s share of the burden is the university. “We’re not meeting our part of the bargain,” Representative Black said. “We’re having more and more veterans show up, and there is certainly no institution that’s going to turn them away, but they’re saying they can’t absorb it anymore.”
The shifting of much of the cost to the universities has largely shielded flat funding for the program -- and what that says or doesn't say about state priorities -- from scrutiny, added Southern Illinois' Hamilton. “If it was a direct cut to [veterans], if they tried to claim their benefits, and they said, ‘I’m sorry we’re only going to cover you for 48 percent of what you’re eligible for,' there would be an outrage in the population.’”
“It’s a great program,” said Tim Winchester, a senior and president of the Western Illinois University Veterans Club. “Your school is paid for by the [Illinois] Veteran Grant and you can use your G.I. Bill to pay your living expenses while you’re in school. It helps you adjust from going from military life to civilian life and not worry about a job.”
“I do think it’s an issue that needs to be addressed,” Winchester said of the debate over who should fund what. “I would have to say that this being the state’s program, they should be the ones that back it up.”