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Witness Testimony of Col. G. Michael Denning (USMC) Ret., Director of Graduate Military Programs University of Kansas On Behalf of Association of Public and Land Grant Universities

Thank you for holding this hearing and for the opportunity to testify before you on H.R. 357, the “GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013.”  My name is Mike Denning, Colonel (Retired), United States Marine Corps and I currently serve as Director of Office of Graduate Military Programs at the University of Kansas (KU).  Prior to joining KU, I spent 27 years in the Marine Corps, and retired as a Colonel.  I am here today representing both KU and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU).

KU and the public university community overall appreciate the spirit of H.R. 357 and I certainly do as veteran.  This nation’s public universities like KU want to ensure that our nation’s veterans are treated fairly and with the respect they deserve.  Public universities around the country are redoubling their efforts to address the needs of veterans and service members to whom we all owe an enormous amount of gratitude.  I can also say that public universities were one of the most engaged groups with respect to successfully restoring the Tuition Assistance (TA) program during the Senate floor debate on the FY2013 omnibus/continuing resolution.  

While we are supportive of the overall intent and spirit of H.R. 357 to provide greater and more affordable access to higher education for veterans, we have an array of concerns about the bill and believe that it may have the unintended consequence of limiting or denying veterans access to higher education institutions.  

Specifically, the bill requires all public universities to offer in-state tuition to all veterans regardless of where they live. We are troubled that, in this case, the federal government would, in effect, impose a federal definition of a “resident” for a given state.  Additionally, this legislation imposes a new unfunded mandate that would force states and/or public institutions to find additional resources to fully support the educational experiences of non-resident veterans.  States, not higher education institutions, set residency requirement rules, and state governments determine how to best use their state tax revenues.

Since states are already facing budget crunches, many of them might simply be unable to afford to change their residency requirements to allow all veterans from across the country to receive in-state tuition.  As currently written, H.R. 357 imposes the penalty of cutting off GI benefits to those states and schools that don’t comply with the in-state residency requirement.  We’re greatly concerned that many states would be unable to meet the unfunded in-state tuition mandate, which potentially would lead to veterans losing the benefit of the GI bill.  

For states that do adjust their residency requirements to provide lower in-state rates for all veterans, universities will be forced to make up the loss of out of-state tuition, which could have a real impact on all students as campuses may be forced to cut services and programs to cover the lack of additional resources or even raise tuition rates across the board.  This would impact all students, including veterans on our campus.

Despite the aforementioned problems with the current form of the bill, we share your commitment to improving access for veterans to quality, affordable higher education.  We hope to work with you to improve the effectiveness of the bill.  In particular, we suggest that the state mandate and penalty be removed and replaced with incentives and supplementary federal funds for states and institutions that broaden the scope of their in-state tuition rates for veterans.
Chairman Flores, Ranking Member Takano, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for holding this hearing and for the opportunity to testify before you on H.R. 357, the “GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013.”  My name is Mike Denning, and I currently have the privilege to serve as Director of the Office of Graduate Military Programs at the University of Kansas (KU).  Prior to joining KU, I spent 27 years in the Marine Corps, and retired as a Colonel.  I am here today representing both KU and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU).

The University of Kansas is justifiably proud of our history in serving the U.S. Armed Forces and veterans.  The population of students using veteran benefits at KU has increased nearly 40 percent since 2010, and our admission statistics for students using veterans benefits for the Fall 2013 semester reflect a continued increase.  We attract veterans and their families for several reasons, not the least of which is our academic reputation.  Some look to KU because of programs like KU Veterans Upward Bound, an education and skills bridge program designed to help first-generation military veterans prepare to enroll in a postsecondary school.  Some, like Anthony Schiedeler, come to KU through our Wounded Warrior Scholarships, which provide not only for those with physical injuries, but for those who suffer from the invisible wounds of war.  These veterans come because of the great educational value of KU, and they stay and graduate because of the supportive atmosphere they experience on campus.  We recognize that because of their Service commitments, most veterans are “non-traditional” students and most have been away from a formal academic setting for several years.  We understand the complexities and challenges of transitioning and provide veterans with a host of programs, like the Veterans Learning Community, which is designed to facilitate the transition from military service to college.  Veterans and their families at KU acquire a “special trust and confidence” in their university and they find additional support through student organizations, like the KU Collegiate Veterans Association (CVA), which is a non-partisan group of military veterans dedicated to supporting veteran/military students, current service members, and their families.  And as these veteran students approach graduation, they find meaningful job contacts through University Career Center, which maintains a specific veterans outreach effort and the KU Veterans Alumni Chapter, which has 15 general officers on its advisory board.  It is programs like these that resulted in KU being recognized nationally as the ninth overall “Best for Vets” university and 14th among the “Best for Vets” Business Schools by Military Times.  

APLU’s membership includes 217 members, consisting of state universities, land-grant universities, state-university systems and related organizations. APLU institutions enroll more than 3.5 million undergraduate students and 1.1 million graduate students, employ more than 645,000 faculty members, and conduct nearly two-thirds of all academic research, totaling more than $34 billion annually.  KU is a proud member of APLU.

KU, and I personally as a veteran, deeply appreciate the interest in and support of student veterans that the Subcommittee has demonstrated.  I assure you that this nation’s public universities, including KU, want to ensure our veterans are treated fairly.  Public universities around the country are redoubling their efforts to address the needs of veterans and service members.  I can also say that public universities were one of the most engaged groups with respect to successfully restoring the Tuition Assistance (TA) program during the Senate floor debate on the FY2013 omnibus/continuing resolution.  As you recall, the programs were slated for elimination by a number of the branches as a result of the sequester.

While we are appreciative of the Subcommittee’s support for student veterans, we are seriously concerned about H.R. 357 as drafted.  As such, we cannot support it in its current form.  We hope that there will be opportunities to further discuss the bill and make changes as the legislative process moves forward.

I want to reiterate that our public universities, including KU, strive to ensure that our nation’s veterans have access to quality education and that they are treated fairly.  With that as the overarching framework for my comments, I would like to highlight some of our philosophical concerns as well as potential practical and operational pitfalls in the bill.  Ultimately, if implemented in its current form, we are concerned that the legislation could unintentionally have negative consequences for veterans and their families and on their education experiences.

•    Philosophical Concerns

An underlying concern with the legislation is that it costs more to educate a student, regardless of where the student is from, than the amount of in-state tuition.  The gap between costs and in-state tuition is a critical reason that states for generations have provided substantial state taxpayer resources to their state institutions. State taxpayers generally subsidize students from their own state because families and students from that state pay taxes there, and often, those families have done so for decades.  Note that the subsidy of in-state students is one of the most compelling arguments of universities when they ask for state support. The additional tuition charged for out-of-state students is generally to cover educational costs not subsidized by the state. If this additional out-of-state tuition is not paid, the money would need to come from somewhere. As written, at the risk of a state making all veterans and beneficiaries attending its public institutions ineligible for the G.I. Bill, the legislation is attempting to force the reallocation of state taxpayer resources.  

We are troubled that the bill would, in effect, impose a federal definition of a “resident” on all states.  Individual states have long determined who qualifies as a resident of their state and who therefore receives state benefits.      

State governments are the best equipped for setting and determining their own policies with respect to state residency and allocating their taxpayer dollars.  The State of Kansas is responsible for setting the rules on who is considered a Kansas resident based on its needs.  Residency requirements for veterans are relaxed at the University of Kansas.  Whereas non-veteran students must reside in the state at the time of enrollment, service members or veterans have three scenarios where residency requirements are relaxed:  (a) the service member must have been stationed in Kansas at some point and returned to Kansas within the last months after military discharge or retirement; (b) the service member is currently on active duty stationed in Kansas or formerly have been on active duty stationed in Kansas; or (c) the service member is a member of the Kansas Army/Air National Guard and residing in Kansas.

Many states have equally, if not more generous policies in place regarding residency rules for veterans e.g. Texas.  

Please keep in mind that these decisions were made by the states themselves, after assessing their own state needs, and goals.  We believe the federal imposition of residency rules on states violates, at a minimum, the spirit of the historical relationship between the federal government and the states and would be a very bad precedent.

Through the various state policies, state governments are deciding to spend their state tax dollars in the most appropriate manner, according to their needs.  Ultimately, the legislation in its current form proposes to impose federal mandates on how state taxpayer funds are used and allocated and how states choose to direct their own resources.

In addition, the legislation as currently drafted would impose a new unfunded mandate on both states and public higher education institutions, which would be a very unfortunate precedent.   In essence, the bill would force states and/or public institutions to find additional resources to fully support the educational experiences of non-resident veterans, costs that are not budgeted for by the state or the institution. The implications of that mandate will be discussed in greater detail below.

•    Practical and Operational Concerns

Our concerns about the bill are not just philosophical.  We believe that there are significant practical and operational challenges as well.  Ultimately, we are concerned that veterans could be unintentionally harmed by the legislation.

As previously noted, there already are states and institutions that charge all veterans the in-state rate.  However, most public institutions do not set state residency rules and policies; those decisions are generally made by the states themselves, including Kansas.  Therefore, should those states not currently offering in-state benefits to all veterans fail to make changes to their statutes and policies by the deadline imposed in the bill, public institutions in those same states would lose their eligibility to participate in the GI Bill.  This would mean that all veterans and other beneficiaries would no longer be able to use these benefits at any of the public institutions in that state.  Even veterans who are recognized by a state as residents would lose their benefits at those institutions.  If veterans and other beneficiaries at these public institutions wish to continue their education at the same institution, they would be forced to rely on other sources for financial support. This would greatly hurt veterans.

States that do decide to provide in-state tuition rates to veterans from across the country would face significant challenges.  Depending on the size of the population using the GI Bill, an influx of students not budgeted for by the states would have a real impact on all students.  Universities and colleges may be forced to cut services and programs to cover the lack of additional resources.  This would impact all students, including veterans on our campuses.

Furthermore, as a last resort, some states, and by extension public institutions in those states, may be forced to increase tuition – again, affecting all students—just to maintain the current offerings and level of quality.  Despite a decrease in state appropriations, public universities have worked to hold down costs and tuition increases.  Depending on the size of the population using the GI Bill benefits, the State of Kansas, and by extension public institutions in Kansas, could be forced to absorb unbudgeted costs.  This could lead to increases in tuition for all students, including veterans.  This is a very likely unintended consequence of the proposed legislation.  

We must highlight the fact that, as a result of the changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, there is a program for qualified veterans designed to achieve the same ends of H.R. 357, without the “unintended consequences” – the Yellow Ribbon Program.  Our understanding of the “Yellow Ribbon” Program is that it is intended as a partnership between participating institutions – both public and private – and the federal government that would make higher education more affordable for veterans.  The program allows institutions of higher education to voluntarily enter into an agreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to fund tuition expenses that exceed the in-state tuition and fee rates.  Under the Yellow Ribbon Program, institutions can contribute up to 50 percent of those expenses and the VA will match the same amount as the institution.  KU participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program so that veterans, residents or non-residents, have their tuition and fees covered if they are recipients of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  H.R. 357 as drafted removes the financial responsibility from the VA and shoulders it squarely on individual states.  

Moreover, H.R. 357 as drafted could even create unintended consequences for the Yellow Ribbon Program.  Under the Yellow Ribbon Program, qualifying veterans attending private institutions, both non-profit and for-profit, are currently eligible to receive up to approximately $18,000 this year to pursue their education.  States that do not currently treat all veterans as in-state residents for the purposes of tuition, or do not grant that authority to make such decisions to their state institutions, would find their institutions as ineligible to accept students who are using veteran benefits.  At best, they would qualify for the in-state tuition rate.  With the federal mandate being proposed in this legislation, veterans pursuing their education at public institutions of higher education would become eligible for even less support from the federal government.  Equity is a real concern. Additionally, by requiring public institutions to charge in-state rates for veterans from anywhere in the country in order to remain eligible for the different variations of the GI Bill – a decision that most public institutions do not have the authority to make – the Yellow Ribbon could become a program geared primarily toward private higher education.  Such a move creates another disadvantage for veterans at public institutions.  

I must also point out that the deadline of 2014 for states to make changes may not be workable even in states that are interested in making those changes.  In a number of states, the state legislature meets only every two years.  In some states, the residency issue may become a state constitutional matter, and thus require more time.  Other states, for a host of legitimate reasons, may refuse to make changes.  The potential practical consequences of the failure to meet the deadline for whatever the reason have been described above.

Having expressed concerns about the deadline, I want to be very clear that delaying the deadline does not deal with our fundamental concerns about this legislation.

Possible changes for consideration

With the inclusion of the federal mandate on state residency requirements in the legislation, KU and APLU cannot endorse H.R. 357 as written.  At the same time, we would like to work with you during the legislative process to bring about positive changes that would assist veterans as they pursue a postsecondary education.
 
•    Promote equity between veterans attending public and private institutions

To ensure equity between veterans attending public institutions and private ones, we request that you consider changing the language to allow veterans attending public institutions to also be eligible for the same level of benefits that are available to those attending private institutions

•    Create financial incentives for states to adopt similar policies.  

Instead of imposing an unworkable federal mandate on states and state institutions, we suggest that you consider creating a financial incentive for states to adopt policies similar to those called for in the legislation. Such financial incentives should address the cost gap of out-of-state students described above.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the University of Kansas and APLU believe that veterans should have vast federal support to access and complete a high quality postsecondary education experience and should be treated fairly during their educational careers.  We appreciate this Subcommittee’s support and interest in student veterans.  Unfortunately, for the philosophical and operational concerns highlighted above, we cannot support the legislation as drafted.  However, we look forward to working with you to strengthen the legislation.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today.  I’d now be happy to answer any of your questions.