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Congress OK’s student vets lower in-state tuition in VA reform legislation

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A new piece of legislation is on board that aims to improve the Department of Veterans Affairs in the wake of the recent scandal exposing veterans’ lack of access to medical care. In approving the compromise legislation late last week, the Senate also approved a new proposal benefit for student veterans and their families. This proposal is part of a broader legislative reform for veterans.

The new proposal would require public universities to offer recent veterans in-state tuition rates in order for the schools to continue receiving GI Bill benefits. It passed on a 91-3 vote and veteran spouses and dependents would also be eligible for this benefit.

The initial legislation is a compromise bill between ones in the House and Senate and cleared the White House last Wednesday on a 420-5 vote. The legislation targets reforms to veterans’ access to health care. Holes in the system were exposed earlier this year when news uncovered that some veterans died while awaiting medical appointments at VA facilities. An explosion of media and veteran angst followed the story.

Veteran groups felt they needed to protect veterans who become “stateless” for the purpose of college in-state tuition, which is lower for state residents, and pushed to include the in-state tuition provision in the new legislation. Veterans returning from military service find it difficult to impossible to meet the residency requirements for the lower in-state tuition rate, often creating a situation of additional hardship for veterans and their families.

Around the nation about 30 states or university systems have already changed their laws to accept returning veterans as in-state students for purposes of tuition. The new legislation likely will require other states to likewise change their laws and policies as well.

However, public universities have suggested that the newly approved provision would essentially reduce federal funding that comes their way, particularly since these institutions have already faced steep budget cuts to higher education in recent years.

The reason is institutions would have to pick up more of the cost for veterans’ education yet not receive the matching federal funds they now receive under the Post-9/11 GI Bill Yellow Ribbon Program when charging higher out-of-state tuition to veterans. In addition, public universities also argue that states, not Congress, should set policies identifying which students are eligible for in-state tuition at public universities.

Additionally, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities told Congressional leaders last month that if the in-state provision takes hold, at minimum it should limit the benefit to veterans only, and not extend to their spouses and dependents. A separate bill the House passed last year mirrors that policy. But the new measure approved by Congress would oblige public universities to provide in-state tuition to veterans and their spouses and children within three years of a veteran’s discharge from active duty.

If a university does not offer this benefit its ability to continue to accept Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits would be discontinued.

The next step is onward to President Obama’s desk for his signature.

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