Despite the promise of a free education through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, a News21 analysis  found that 29 states have residency policies that force veterans to pay out-of-state tuition.
The higher-education benefit pays all tuition, fees and a housing stipend for veterans at any public institution. More than 2 million Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are eligible for a share of the nearly $21 billion that the Department of Veterans Affairs is budgeted to pay for higher education through the 2014 academic year.
Marine Corps Cpl. veteran Brian Oller’s benefits were not enough to compensate him for the more than $22,000 in out-of-state tuition he must pay to the UC San Diego. Like so many other vets, Oller grew fond of his last stateside duty station and decided to move there.
“I didn’t know about the out-of-state tuition until the day I showed up,” the 31-year-old Iraqi-war-veteran-turned-Earth-science-major said of his move from Lubbock, Texas. “That was a kick in the gut.”
California is one of the 29 states that require veterans to spend a year living inside their borders to establish residency and qualify for the lower tuition it brings. Out-of-state tuition can cost veterans more than their education benefits provide. That time can delay veterans’ enrollment, or the non-resident tuition could increase their student loan debt.
Oller was seeking more than the pleasant Southern California climate on his move from Texas. He is enrolled in the UCSD Scripps Institution of Oceanography, ranked as the No. 1 doctoral program for biological sciences by the National Research Council in 2010.
Twenty-one states acknowledge veterans’ dilemmas and have in place policies that waive residency.
Veterans paying out-of-state tuition at a public university may get additional help when their fees exceed the GI Bill maximum of $18,077.50 an academic year. They can make up at least some of the difference through the Yellow Ribbon Program. In it, the VA will reimburse participating schools for some of the additional tuition and fee debt incurred by student veterans.
For the 2013-2014 school year, the GI Bill cap will be $19,198.31, according to the VA annual adjustment.
Congress also is considering extending in-state tuition to all Post-9/11 GI Bill veterans. Doing so would cost the government an estimated $132 million, 2014-2018, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Opponents say that accommodating non-resident veterans would require higher taxes to pay for their education and would stretch resources for public universities, ultimately causing them to lose money. Public higher education tuition is less than half the cost of private, not-for-profit institutions, according to 2010-2011 academic year data by the National Center for Education Statistics.
But non-resident tuition increases students’ debt. Oller owes UCSD about $22,500, he said, heading into his second year. Nationwide in 2008, service members had, on average, student loan debt of $25,566, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Oller works multiple jobs and uses his tradesman skills to try to offset the out-of-state tuition costs. But he said getting in-state tuition is critical.
“I’ve come to the conclusion now that if they don’t give me in-state tuition, then I’m not going to be able to continue,” he said. “It wears on you. It’s difficult to sit in class and pay attention and go on and on with your work, with your studies with this nagging question in the back of your head: ‘Can I even afford to be here?’”
Before Maryland approved in-state tuition for all veterans, the 12-college University System of Maryland initially opposed the move, said state Rep. Donna Stifler, a Republican who co-sponsored the in-state tuition bill.
“We passed in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants, it only made sense we were going to pass something like this for veterans,” she said.
The California Legislature also is considering the issue.
Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, a Republican and retired Marine Corps colonel, wants to implement in-state tuition for all veterans. His bill is awaiting approval in the state Senate. Chavez sees his proposal as potential revenue for California, saying that the tuition policy would attract veterans.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s an investment in people that will make us money.”
In Congress, the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act, which would grant in-state tuition to all veterans at any public higher education institution. A House version of the bill was passed out of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in June and is now pending before the full House. A companion bill in the Senate is awaiting committee action.
“By offering in-state tuition, service members can attend an institution of higher learning that meets their specific needs without worrying about higher costs which non-residents often must pay,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R.-Fla., chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
But Richard Rider, who spent 26 years in the Navy — 22 in the Reserve – is the founder of tax advocacy group San Diego Tax Fighters. He identifies himself as Republican and said that colleges already have enough “subsidies” in place for students.
“California should certainly welcome veterans, but we shouldn’t pay them to come here, that’s essentially what we’re doing,” Rider said.
The unfolding legislative and tax debate has veterans adopting clever moves to comply with state laws.
Post-9/11 veteran Army Spc. Case Taylor Collins, 25, moved his wedding date from October 2011 to March that year so he could pay in-state tuition at the University of Tennessee. Collins, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, was talking to the VA liaison at the university when someone in the adjacent cubicle told him he would qualify for in-state tuition if his marriage to a Tennessee native took place before the end of the current semester.
His accelerated “I do” saved Collins about $14,000.
“We love each other, we were going to get married anyways,” said Collins, whose vows were said at the courthouse.
Juliette Williams, an Air Force staff sergeant who in 2007-08 spent eight months in Afghanistan, has accumulated more than $24,000 in out-of-state tuition costs at the University of Tennessee, despite joining a National Guard unit there in November 2012. She thought that service would qualify her for in-state tuition, she said.
Along with her National Guard post, Williams also works at Office Depot, slowly paying down her debt. She said it’s disappointing because she was raised not to owe money.
“It’s the Volunteer State, (but) when you volunteer, it doesn’t matter,” Williams, biochemistry major, said.
Tennessee grants residency to service members stationed in the state. That includes more than 33,000 on active duty at the Arnold Air Force Base, Naval Support Activity Mid-South and Fort Campbell, much of which crosses the state line into Kentucky.
Williams wants to work for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the renowned Memphis-based cancer research center, and she said that her best chance is to apply from the University of Tennessee Health Science College of Medicine. She cannot, however, establish residency without acknowledging a reason beyond education for moving to the state.
She still hopes to be accepted into the medical college, where the program includes an internship at St. Jude. Her interest in medicine stemmed from her father’s death from cancer.
“You become a civilian and your life changes,” Williams said. “I would like to work at St. Jude; that’s my goal eventually.”
Williams, who grew up in Pennsylvania, would even have had to establish one year of residency there, because she was discharged from active duty in California. State Rep. Stephen Barrar, a Pennsylvania Republican, wants to change that. His bill would waive for veterans the required one year of residency. Barrar’s bill passed the Pennsylvania House and is awaiting Senate approval.
“This is one of those bills that transcends partisan lines,” Barrar said.
“Back Home: The Challenges Facing Post-9/11 Veterans Returning from the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ” was produced by News21 , a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. News21 is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Hearst Foundations, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, Women & Philanthropy at ASU and the Peter Kiewit Foundation funded the work of individual fellows.