COLUMBIA — Legislators want to make it easier for veterans to go to college in South Carolina by paying tuition at in-state rates, though bills differ on how to do that.
Rep. Joe Daning, R-Goose Creek, said the effort is about honoring veterans in this military-friendly state. He said he also hopes it serves as a recruitment tool for a state with a veteran population that already exceeds 400,000, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Every military student who comes into this state is highly disciplined, highly skilled,” he said. “Hopefully, we can get them employed right here.”
At least 19 states already allow veterans to pay in-state tuition, either through state law or – like neighboring Georgia – the policy of a college oversight board. Of those, at least 13 extend the benefit to dependents too, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Daning’s bill, which passed the House unanimously last week, would waive the one-year residency requirement for veterans and their dependents who prove they intend to make South Carolina their permanent home. It would allow them to enroll immediately in a public college without paying up to $18,000 extra. They would just need to show proof – such as a state driver’s license – before classes start.
“A lot of veterans coming back have to sit on their hands for 12 months while they wait to qualify for in-state rates,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Lorraine, executive director of the Augusta-Aiken Warrior Project, which seeks to reduce homelessness and unemployment among veterans.
He said he began advocating for the change after trying to help an Air Force major who wanted to come back home to Aiken after eight years in the military, but she couldn’t afford the $9,000 difference at USC-Aiken or the wait. So she moved elsewhere.
Another returning soldier, Lorraine said, decided to find a job while biding his time, but it’s now uncertain he’ll go to college.
Lorraine prefers Sen. Tom Young’s bill, which is stalled in subcommittee. It allows the in-state rate for anyone attending college on the GI Bill, mimicking a proposal introduced in the U.S. House in January.
Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the federal government will pay the full in-state cost at a public college for any service member honorably discharged after at least three years of active duty, as well as a housing allowance and books stipend.
The Senate bill eliminates the residency roadblocks, Lorraine said.
State regulations allow eight ways to prove residency, including vehicle registration and home ownership. Colleges can require students meet more than one.
“It’s an administrative burden,” Lorraine said. “Why are we putting obstructions toward veterans when we should be making it as easy as possible?”
But college officials worry how Young’s bill could affect their budgets. The House bill is expected to have a minimal effect. Officials see it as speeding up the process for veterans and their dependents who intend to come anyway. But they worry Young’s bill will attract service members from other states, paying at a lower cost.
Colleges expect to lose out on a combined $7 million a year, ranging from $70,000 to $1.7 million, according to a fiscal impact statement by the state budget office. It’s based on colleges’ responses to a Commission on Higher Education survey, which notes it’s impossible to accurately determine the impact. Tuition increases are possible if any particular school gets a large number of veterans granted the exception, it reads.
State law already waives the one-year residency requirement for active-duty military service members stationed in South Carolina, people who move to the state with a full-time job, and retirees, as well as their dependents.
If we grant those exceptions, Lorraine asked, “Why can’t we do it for our veterans, especially those with the GI Bill? It’s an easy issue.”
Young, R-Aiken, said he just wants a bill passed. Daning’s bill died in the Senate last year.
“It’s important that we do what we can to assist our veterans with getting an education so that they can find work and get retrained for the civilian workforce after leaving the military,” Young said.