COLLEGE
12/18/2012 02:39 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2012

Student Veterans Struggle To Get In-State Tuition At Public Colleges In North Carolina

NEW YORK -- After serving in the military, Andrew Sammons returned to home to the house where he lived with his wife in North Carolina and decided to apply to the University of North Carolina-Wilmington to get his master's degree in accounting. He then spent the better part of three months trying to prove he was a resident of North Carolina to avoid a huge tuition bill.

Even though Sammons had owned his house in North Carolina for more than a year, had been paying taxes on it, had a driver's license and vehicles registered in the state and was an active-duty member of the Army, UNC-Wilmington considered him a nonresident for tuition purposes. Which meant that instead of paying the in-state tuition rate of $7,694, his annual bill would be $28,446 (not including books and other fees).

He appealed multiple times, and it wasn't until he spoke in front of an admissions review board in person to explain his situation that they finally reversed course and awarded him in-state status.

"I asked them why, and they said because I'd delivered 'a preponderance of evidence,'" Sammons said. Which was unusual, since he had been told that he had not provided "a preponderance of evidence" prior to speaking to the board. "I hadn't supplied any additional information," Sammons said, it was the same packet of document he used all along when applying.

Andrea Weaver, a spokesperson for UNC-Wilmington, said they "make every effort to explain and clarify the very specific, and very nuanced, requirements for state residency." She added that the application and appeal process is an "open dialogue" from start to finish.

But Sammons' tale is hardly an anomaly. Lauren Hinson, an Army veteran, struggled when she applied to Fayetteville Technical Community College. She had voted in the state, had been issued a North Carolina driver's license and had lived in the Tar Heel State for two years. However, because Hinson had been a stay-at-home mother of two and had last paid income tax in Washington state, she was deemed an out-of-state resident for tuition purposes.

"I emailed them thinking there was a mistake. There wasn't anywhere where I could comment and explain my situation," said Hinson, whose husband is also in the military.

Like Sammons, Hinson also owned a house and had registered her vehicle in the state. But after fighting with Fayetteville Tech, Hinson was eventually allowed to pay in-state tuition only because her husband's military orders stationed them in North Carolina. Technically, she's still a nonresident to the college, which irritates her.

"I don't think my husband has anything to do with me being a resident," Hinson said. She explained that if he were ordered to leave for a year, she would stay in North Carolina. "I shouldn't be considered a resident just for the fact that I am married to a military man, I should be considered a resident because I am a resident."

Brent R. Michaels, a spokesperson for FTCC, couldn't comment on Hinson's case, but explained that when a service member and/or a spouse "legally avoid the state's income taxes, it becomes more difficult for them to be classified as in-state students."

"College leadership has lobbied for changes to state tuition laws as they relate to service members," Michaels said. "Until the laws are changed, however, the college must comply with existing law."

The Root Of The Problem

Part of the issue stems from a recent changes to the post-9/11 GI Bill that allow student veterans attending public colleges to be covered only for the highest in-state tuition and fees, while vets going to private colleges are eligible for a larger amount of money. The previous version of the bill covered out-of-state costs. So if a student has trouble qualifying for in-state residency, he or she is left to pay the difference in tuition out of pocket.

The GI Bill change was a move to save the federal government money. Meanwhile, cash-strapped public colleges are losing financial support from state legislatures, making any tuition discount all the more costly.

The problem has continually popped up in North Carolina, which ranks seventh in state expenditures on veterans' education and ninth in veteran population, according to the VA. But the Student Veterans Advocacy Group estimates 250,000 student veterans nationally face these tuition problems each year.

Federal legislation introduced by Rep. George Butterfield (D-N.C.) -- the Veterans Educational Equity Act -- would correct the problem by providing student vets with equitable reimbursement to finance their education through the post-9/11 GI Bill, if they have trouble obtaining in-state tuition.

"It is unfair that returning heroes who attend public colleges are forced to pay more out of pocket in tuition than veterans who attend private institutions," Butterfield said. "This inequity has resulted in many veterans dropping out of college or assuming significant financial burdens to attend school."

The Veterans of Foreign Wars announced earlier this year that it supports the bill, as does SVAG, and there are currently 57 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.

The Veterans Educational Equity Act legislation is unlikely to go anywhere in the remaining weeks of the 112th Congress. Butterfield said he is "cautiously optimistic" it will pass in the new year. In the absence of a federal fix, Butterfield suggested schools lobby their state legislatures to change the law.

State Efforts To Fix Things

The state legislature in California -- first in both veteran population and amount spent on their education -- attempted this year to amend state law to exempt any veteran from paying nonresident tuition rates. It passed unanimously out of committee, but then died in the General Assembly amid concerns over how much it would cost the state in lost revenue. Based on 2010-11 figures from GI Jobs magazine, the difference for the roughly 200 vets now paying nonresident rates would lose the state $2.56 million per year.

Despite the cost, Ohio and Virginia -- two states with larger veteran populations than North Carolina -- provide in-state tuition for vets. Kentucky, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado and Alaska all have laws guaranteeing in-state tuition rates for veterans as well. Yet, with only a handful of states moving to adopt these laws, it remains a patchwork for vets to navigate.

Since Sammons joined the SVAG as vice president of logistics, they've helped 32 other vets in North Carolina deal with conflicts over in-state tuition. The packets they've compiled have all gone toward a resources page on their website, and SVAG has signed on to support a lawsuit against UNC filed by veteran Hayleigh Perez for denying her in-state residency status.

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