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By George Altman
Army Times Staff writer

Lawmakers in a deeply divided House of Representatives can’t agree on much anymore, but they’re unanimous on at least one thing: Veterans shouldn’t be stuck with out-of-state tuition costs at public universities.

A bill that would force schools to ease such residency rules for vets — or lose GI Bill eligibility entirely — passed the House Feb. 3 without a single dissenting vote, 390-0.

The measure must still pass the Senate and be signed by the president to become law, and a more expansive veterans bill in the Senate, which covers many issues in addition to in-state tuition, appears to lack the broad, bipartisan support of the House bill. But such a show of support in the House likely means the chances are good that some version of the in-state tuition proposal will become law by the end of the year.

The House vote “sends a strong message that both parties believe veterans should never be disqualified for in-state tuition at public colleges because of past military obligations,” Ryan Gallucci, deputy legislative director for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a written statement.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers the full cost of tuition at public universities at the in-state rate but does not pay for the extra fees charged to students designated as out-of-state. This can often be a problem for vets, who have been ordered by Uncle Sam to move around the country or the world.

The cost difference is substantial. The average cost of in-state tuition at public schools in the 2012-13 school year was $8,655, according to the College Board. For out-of-state students, it was $21,706.

VFW and other veterans service organizations have pushed strongly for the House proposal. But some people have expressed reservations.

Under H.R. 357, dubbed the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act, any school that doesn’t offer in-state tuition to vets when the bill becomes effective in summer 2016 would be prohibited from accepting any GI Bill benefits.

Veterans using GI Bill benefits prior to that deadline could continue to do so as long as they remain enrolled at the school. But all other vets would have to either find another school or find another way to pay.

“In-state tuition requirements vary across all 50 states, and within schools, and one of our concerns is: Could, or how would, we help define a program that would not limit choices to our veterans?" Curtis Coy, a deputy undersecretary for the Veterans Affairs Department, said in an April 2013 congressional hearing.

Questions have also been raised about what the bill would mean for the bottom lines of federal and state governments, as well as universities.

“The men and women who served this nation did not just defend the citizens of their home states, but the citizens of all 50 states. This bill will ensure our veterans’ educational benefits reflect that important principle,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a written statement. “And because H.R. 357 saves the government money, it’s a win for taxpayers as well as veterans.”

But schools and state governments could have to make up for some of the money that the federal government saves.

Currently, public universities can help vets make up for the gap between in-state and out-of-state tuition with the Yellow Ribbon program, which is paid for jointly by schools and VA. The bill would make Yellow Ribbon unnecessary by essentially holding schools entirely responsible for the cost difference.

Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said his organization supports efforts to offer low-cost public university education to vets, but the legislation “abdicates all of the responsibility for balancing the books.”

The in-state tuition rate is significantly lower than what it costs to educate students, Nassirian said. State budgets provide schools with extra money to make up that difference. But the House bill provides no extra money for schools.

“For Congress to simply come in and basically legislate a free lunch without paying for it ... would throw an enormous monkey wrench into the operation of public institutions,” Nassirian said.

He added that state legislatures and boards of education sometimes control such tuition policies — not the universities themselves — so some schools might not be able to offer the tuition discount to vets even if they want to, and would become ineligible for the GI Bill as a result.

In order to qualify under the House bill, a vet must have at least 90 days of active-duty service and be within three years of separating from the military. Schools can require that vets “demonstrate an intent” to establish residency in their particular states.

In addition to its in-state tuition mandate, the bill would also:

  • Impose stronger infectious disease reporting requirements on VA hospitals.
  • Ban perfromance bonuses for VA executives for five years.
  • Allow veterans to use vocational rehab benefits up to 17 years from discharge, instead of the current 12 years.
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