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Witness Testimony of Dr. Susan Aldridge, Senior Fellow, American Association of State Colleges and Universities

Chairman Flores, Ranking Member Takano, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee, my name is Susan Aldridge.  I am currently a Senior Fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, commonly known as “AASCU”, and on whose behalf I appear before you this morning.  Prior to AASCU, I served as president at the University of Maryland University College and as Vice Chancellor at Troy University in Alabama.  UMUC and Troy are two state universities each serving a large population of service members and veterans.
AASCU represents 420 institutions and university systems across 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands. These institutions represent the diversity of higher education institutions from small liberal arts institutions to large research institutions and from open enrollment institutions to selective institutions.  The common foundation of AASCU institutions is their focus on students.  In addition, AASCU is the contracting agent for the Service members Opportunity Colleges designed to expand and improve voluntary postsecondary education opportunities for service members worldwide.
Thank you for holding this hearing and providing me with the opportunity to present testimony regarding H.R. 357, The G.I. Bill Tuition Fairness Act, introduced by the Honorable Jeff Miller of Florida. I ask that my written testimony be entered into the record.
H.R. 357 would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to deny GI Bill benefits to veterans who are not charged tuition rates equal to or less than the in-state tuition rate. Moreover, this bill would not allow any veteran or their dependent enrolled at the public institution to receive GI Bill Benefits if the institution does not offer in-state tuition to all veterans, thus cutting benefits to our veterans. AASCU supports the underlying premise of treating veterans as in-state residents and strongly supports the educational endeavors of our veterans; however, passage of H.R. 357 will potentially result in unintended consequences that I will address in more detail.
 Most public colleges do not set their tuition policy. Currently, ten states allow individual public institutions to set their own tuition policy. Postsecondary tuition policy in the remaining forty states are set by state legislatures or a statewide coordinating board. In addition, many states have set clear criteria as to which students are allowed to be given in-state tuition benefits. Currently, only nine states offer in-state tuition to qualified veterans immediately upon taking up residency within the state.  Thus, state legislatures will ultimately be required to change the residency treatment of veterans.  This is a potentially difficult obstacle in many states.
    This is further highlighted by a passage from a State Higher Education Executive Officers February 2011 report entitled “State Tuition, Fees, and Financial Assistance Policies for Public Colleges and Universities 2010-2011.”  On page 7, the report states that “States were asked to describe the process through which tuition levels are set. The variety of answers given underscores that there are as many processes for setting tuition as there are states. In many states, the process is a multi-step process involving many entities.”
Given the complexity of relying on forty state entities to change policies, it is quite likely that institutions will not have the ability to charge in-state rates even if they so desired.  Veterans wanting to enroll in public institutions in those states would need to seek other, more-than-likely, costlier programs in order to utilize their GI Bill benefit. Veterans would be forced to either move to a state that offered in-state tuition, go to a more expensive private institution, or attend a for-profit college.
This creates a scenario of confusion since many veterans arrive on campus with the full expectation of receiving their GI Bill benefit. Institutions would be forced to inform veterans that they would not be eligible to bring their benefit to the public institutions in states where in-state tuition hasn’t been approved.  Further, no new additional veterans whether designated in-state or out-of-state could use their GI Bill benefits in the state without legislative change. Thus, AASCU envisions further confusion which could potentially discourage the veteran from pursuing post-secondary education altogether and creating a negative atmosphere toward a veteran-friendly institution.
Non-residency occurs in many situations due to the conclusion of a service member’s end of duty in a specific location.  These veterans decide to remain in that local community due to a variety of reasons – children established in local schools, spousal employment, the individual or family members have integrated into the community, etc.  If they are located in a state that is unable or has yet to alter residency treatment for veterans, significant disruption to the family unit could occur. A veteran would explore options at one campus, not be able to use their GI Bill benefits and be forced to move to a state that offers in-state tuition in order to receive their benefits. Passage of this measure would create a hodge-podge map of eligible and ineligible states.
Further, has the Committee considered the treatment of a veteran who is forced to move to another state as a result of family obligations? A possible scenario might include a spouse who secures employment or health care assistance for a family member. If a veteran is attending classes at an institution within a state that has in-state treatment for veterans, but moves to one that does not, the veteran will no longer be eligible to use their GI Bill benefits in order to complete their coursework.
It is also instructive for the Committee to understand the nature of in-state versus out-of-state rates. One way of looking at an established out-of-state rate is to consider it as the full cost to the institution of educating a student. Since public institutions receive support from the state in order to provide residents with an education, the in-state rate reflects the cost to the institution after factoring in the state subsidy. Thus, an in-state rate is supported by state taxpayers. Passage of this bill would shift paying for the promise established under the GI Bill of supporting the education of a veteran from the federal government to the states specifically and only for veterans attending public institutions.
The following is a list of suggested improvements to the measure that preserve the bill’s underlying goals while not adversely impacting our nation’s veterans.
1.    Delay implementation of the bill beyond 2014. State entities will need time to alter policies.  As noted tuition setting policy is complex and 2014 is too soon even for states that are ready and willing to do this today. This would also allow time to educate our current and future veterans on these changes.
2.    Treat out-of-state veterans in the same manner as veterans attending private institutions, rather than establishing a special class of citizens of veterans attending public institutions. This principle is in line with the tenants of the original Post 9/11 GI Bill.
3.    Require states to develop a clearly articulated, straightforward policy informing veterans on how to qualify for in-state tuition. This would preserve state rights and establish a transparent process for veterans.
4.    Develop an incentive-based system that would reward those states already providing in-state tuition to veterans. This would reward states that are doing what they should be doing and encourage other states to update their polices. Incentives could include additional funds for veterans’ support services and benefits.
Finally, this bill screams of government overreach. Various state entities have traditionally had the right to establish tuition policy. This authority is a clear state right. This bill opens the door for federal intervention and dictates tuition policies for public institutions around the country. While it is appropriate for the federal government to be a partner in higher education, it should not be an overreaching manager.
In closing, AASCU institutions are serving our nation’s veterans well. Institution after institution have established programs to provide quality service for our nation’s military students from providing assistance and counseling for veterans transitioning from combat to college, separate orientation courses, and peer-to-peer support networks to name a few.  In addition, some public colleges offer niche programs that build off of a veteran’s military training.  These programs are not offered by every institution or in every state, but are highly-selective and desirable programs.  Passage of this bill would limit the exposure of quality support programs and the ability to pursue an education in a desirable field from an otherwise affordable public institution of higher education.
As a grateful Nation, we are committed to providing our veterans with the maximum benefits they rightly deserve.  Let’s make sure we also are providing the flexibility our veterans need to use them.  Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.