When Tyler Garner was in Afghanistan as a staff sergeant with the 1st Special Forces Group, he taught villagers how they could help set up stable, functioning governance, with one of the goals being eventually creating an accessible education system for all.
But when Garner, 29, left the service last year and came to St. Petersburg, he found impediments to education for himself and thousands of other veterans seeking an education back in the United States.
Like many service members who move frequently during their military career, Garner, who was born in Metropolis, Ill., had yet to establish the year-long residency required under the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill when he enrolled at St. Petersburg College in August 2012.
For Garner and thousands of others in Florida like him, that meant a big expense and lots of hassles, adding stress during an already difficult transition period from military to civilian life.
In a media blitz ahead of Veterans Day, today, the Department of Veterans Affairs Friday touted how an Army veteran attending college in New Jersey became the 1 millionth veteran to receive tuition benefits under the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill. More than $30 billion has been spent on veterans’ tuition and other education-related payments since the program’s inception in 2009. For honorably discharged veterans who served at least 36 months, the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill picks up 100 percent of secondary education costs.
But it only pays in-state tuition rates. Out-of-state veterans seeking a secondary education in Florida and 42 other states have to pay the difference, which is considerable.
Having just arrived in Florida after more than eight years in the Army, Garner’s bill for a semester at SPC was nearly double the in-state rate, leaving him scrambling to find a way to pay what the G.I. Bill didn’t cover. And he isn’t alone.
Last year, there were nearly 2,200 non-resident veteran students in state universities and colleges, according to the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. Those students were forced to pay as much as three times what resident students pay, according to a state legislative analysis. The average two-semester cost for resident undergraduates last year was about $6,000, compared to more than $20,500 for non-residents. For graduate students, there was a 250 percent increase, from about $10,000 for residents to nearly $25,000 for non-residents. The Florida College System reported even greater differences, a little more than $3,000 for non-baccalaureate programs for residents compared to more than $11,000 for non-residents. Baccalaureate degree programs showed an increase of nearly 500 percent for non-residents, from $3,541 to $15,741.
Bridging those gaps is the “number one priority” for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, says spokesman Steve Murray.
“This year we are going to attack it and make it number our one legislative initiative,” said Murray, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. “The biggest thing we can do is to affect legislation, make it easier so veterans don’t have to wait a year or never to get in-state tuition.”
There may be some relief on the way. Two bills are working their way through the state legislature that would make Florida the eighth state to waive the residency requirement.
Similar legislation has been introduced for several years, but the measures never passed. Earlier this year, the legislation died in the House Education Committee after being attached to a bill offering tuition benefits to immigrants.
This year, proponents hope that it might be a different story.
There are two bills circulating through the state house calling for the residency requirement to be waved. There is also federal legislation being considered that would force the state to give veterans in-state tuition by barring Florida institutions from receiving G.I. Bill funding unless veterans receive in-state tuition rates.
State Rep. Kathleen Peters, who is sponsoring the lower chamber version of the bill, says she started working on the residency waiver issue even before she was elected last year.
Peters says she began pushing for the waiver when she was at the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“It was very clear throughout the years I worked with the chamber’s military committee that veterans come back with incredible workforce skills,” said Peters. “Military and veterans maybe didn’t choose to make a career in the military, but for a period of time, they chose to put civilian careers on hold while they served the country. They put their lives on the line for strangers, were willing to give their life in a second’s notice for strangers and our freedoms. When someone comes back from service for the citizens of this country, we should not make them wait to go to school and get on with their career.”
When Peters took office last year, she says she was approached by St. Petersburg College to re-introduce the legislation.
SPC has plenty of company, according to Murray of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.
Even though legislative analysis on a bill introduced in the last session showed the state’s colleges and universities stood to lose out on about a combined $8 million by having the residency requirement waived for veterans, some of the state’s largest public schools, including the University of South Florida, the University of Florida, Florida State University, and the University of Central Florida support legislation that would do away with the residency requirement, Murray said.
SPC and USF are among the schools that have publicly supported the residency waiver legislation.
“Many of the arguments against approving bills similar to the current (legislation) is that this change in residency for Veteran students would put an undue fiscal burden on an already strained education budget for the state,” Jeff Cavanagh, SPC’s director of veteran services, wrote in favor of residency waiver legislation.
“Opponents do not argue the merit in granting exceptions for Veterans, rather their concern over the fiscal impact. While the fiscal impact of this is an important factor, it is not the only one to consider,” he said. “The responsibility of providing a budgetary solution for our state’s education system should not fall on our nation’s war Veterans. Our state schools offer tuition waivers to a number of students, from athletes to anyone who can contribute to the diversity of the institution; and the Veterans of the Armed Forces are certainly worthy of the same treatment.”
USF President Judy Genshaft offered similar sentiments.
“For the 1,700 USF student veterans, the important next step in their journey is earning their degree,” she wrote. “That’s why USF strongly supports the proposed state legislation that grants every honorably discharged veteran the right to pay the Florida resident rate tuition at our public colleges and universities. “Our nation’s veterans deserve our support in ensuring their success. Florida benefits from the leadership skills, maturity and perspective veterans bring to the classroom and to the workplace.
We thank all the members of the Florida Legislature who are advancing this important legislation and specifically two Tampa Bay area legislators, Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Kathleen Peters, who are the primary sponsors of this legislation.”
Sen. Bill Nelson, (D-Fla.), co-sponsored the Senate version of legislation that would force states to waive residency requirements for veterans.
“Helping vets afford college is one of the best things we can do for them,” said Nelson, whose bill, S257, was sent to the Veterans Affairs Committee in June, where it still is.
Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa), supports the House version.
“I am a strong supporter of HR 357, the G.I. Bill Tuition Fairness Act, because our veterans deserve the top-notch educational opportunities that Florida colleges and universities provide,” she wrote in an email to The Tribune. “In fact, USF is one of the top academic institutions in the country for veterans. USF student veteran Kiersten Downs is an outstanding example of the type talented veteran who we want to attract and keep in Florida.
As a cosponsor of the impactful “G.I. Bill for the 20th Century” that provides scholarships for the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the next important step is to ensure that their pathway to a college degree is affordable.”
Proponents of the residency waiver say that the cost of allowing veterans to pay the in-state rate can be offset.
Murray says that not only is waiving the residency requirement for veterans the right thing to do for those who served, but it makes economic sense in the long run for colleges and universities.
“Many Florida universities and colleges make money off out-of-state students,” he says. “It’s a good source of income.”
One reason, said SPC’s Cavanagh, is that each veteran using the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill gets a $1,600 monthly stipend. With about 1,170 of SPC’s 1,800 veteran students receiving Post 9/11 G.I. Bill benefits, that means “nearly $1.9 million funneled into the local economy, over and above tuition,” said Cavanagh, who retired from the Navy in 1994 as a commander after 22 years.
To Garner, who said he wants to pursue a business degree, doing nothing has the opposite effect.
“This is how I look at it,” he said. “Florida is pushing people away. We need that incentive. Not having it is really a turn-off. If more veterans come here, it will be more revenue for colleges.”