Witness Testimony of LtGen Joseph F. Weber (USMC) Ret., Vice President for Student Affairs, Texas A&M University
Chairman Flores and distinguished members of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, my name is Joe Weber and I have the privilege of serving as Vice President of Student Affairs at Texas A&M University. In addition, I am a retired LtGen with 36 years of service in the US Marine Corps.
I want to begin by thanking you for the chance to come before you today to present testimony on important issues relating to supporting veteran’s success in pursuing higher education. At Texas A&M, and indeed in the state of Texas, we deeply value the sacrifice and service of veterans and their families. We appreciate this committee’s desire to reflect the fact that these men and women have served all states in the nation by providing them with in-state tuition benefits regardless of residency.
Texas A&M agrees that it is critically important to provide access to higher education for our veterans. With thousands of commissioned officers and seven Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, no university in the nation outside of the service academies has contributed more to military service than Texas A&M. Texas A&M is undeniably veteran friendly; hence the large number of active duty personnel, and veterans on campus. Currently, the veteran enrollment at Texas A&M is approximately 600 students.
We offer numerous programs and resources that benefit veterans. There are two offices designed specifically to support veterans—Scholarships and Financial Aid Veteran Service Office (VSO) and the Veteran Resource and Support Center (VRSC). These offices strive to “serve well, those who have served” through a unique and powerful partnership to ensure veteran and military dependent success from “application to vocation.”
The VSO offers streamlined processing of all federal and state educational benefits, deferred tuition pending Veterans Administration (VA) funds, veteran new student orientation, faculty and staff mentor training and cross campus referrals that reach campus wide. The VSO also identifies and awards scholarships for veterans. We are a partner school with the Pat Tillman Foundation and currently have recipients on campus that benefit from that scholarship. Recent procedural improvements in the VSO have significantly improved military educational benefit processing to ensure the best possible financial support for both veterans and military dependents.
The VRSC was established in September 2012 to provide additional student support and programming for veterans. The office has developed and implemented a variety of new programs that enhance veteran recognition, improve health service access, increase academic support opportunities and connect students with local community veteran organizations and resources. The VRSC was designed to ensure that Texas A&M can continue to provide the highest quality of support as our student veteran population increases.
The VRSC facilitates a cross functional university committee called the Troops to College Committee which identifies and addresses areas for improvement in veteran success. Two subcommittees have been created to improve data collection for Veterans and to oversee assessment of veteran needs and programs. The Troops to College Committee is comprised of key leaders from offices across campus including admissions, disability services, career center, counseling center, academic offices, Office of the Registrar, Student Veteran Association, Student Government, ROTC departments, Office of the Commandant, Student Business Services and others as needed to better support our student veterans.
The VRSC launched the Aggie Veteran Network (AVN). It is designed to connect Aggie student vets, dependents, military families, and veteran faculty/staff with each other and with external organizations. The mission of the AVN is twofold: First, to connect those who are providing, or are willing to provide, resources and support to our students. Second, to link our military affiliated students with high-impact opportunities to support each other and the local community. The AVN will link with the new Association of Former Student Aggie Veteran & Military Constituent Network next year.
Each veteran student who graduates from Texas A&M wears a red, white and blue Veteran Graduation cord at their commencement ceremony, as a visible sign of our respect and honor for them.
The Texas A&M University System hosts a Military Symposium annually. System schools, other Texas schools and community organizations attend every year. There are informative veteran related sessions, “best practices” discussions and networking opportunities at the event. Veteran students are invited to share their experiences in college and transition challenges to provide attendees with a better sense of how to prioritize their efforts to improve programs and support. The system wide document on best practices for military and veteran support and services is also attached for you information.
Texas A&M is home to the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV), which is a collaboration between the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship, and the Center for Executive Development and Mays Business School. The EBV initiative offers cutting edge, experiential training in entrepreneurship and small business management to soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines disabled as a result of their service supporting operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
Texas A&M University is a member of the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC) Consortium of approximately 1,900 college and universities. SOC Consortium members subscribe to principles and criteria to ensure that quality academic programs are available to service members, including members of the National Guard and Coast Guard, their family members, reservists, and veterans of all Services. As a SOC Consortium member, we ensure that military students share in appropriately accredited postsecondary educational opportunities available to other citizens. Flexibility of programs and procedures, particularly in admissions, counseling, credit transfer, course articulations, recognition of non-traditional learning experiences, scheduling, course format, and residency requirements are provided to enhance access of service members and their family members to higher education programs.
Indeed, Texas A&M was ranked #11 Best for Vets in Military Edge magazine in 2011. In 2012 Texas A&M was an honoree in Top Military Friendly Colleges and Universities by Military Advanced Education.
Clearly these examples demonstrate that Texas A&M greatly values our veteran student population. In addition, Texas A&M sees the veteran student population as bringing this value back to the state of Texas. States offering higher education benefits to veterans benefit greatly from veterans’ presence in the state both during and after their enrollment in college. Veterans contribute to the state economy and local community through a variety of means. Indeed, high-quality public colleges and universities improve states and communities by attracting veterans, scholars, students and researchers who lay down roots, pay taxes, buy property, and contribute to the community in countless immeasurable ways. The opportunity to draw more veterans to a state often provides a strong rationale for adopting policies to extend in-state tuition eligibility to veterans.
As a case in point, student veteran expansion has dramatically increased in Texas, bringing an estimated $1 billion in educational benefit revenues to the state in FY 2012 alone. Nationally the total GI Bill expenditure approaches $26 billion since 2009. Texas has demonstrably embraced our veteran population and I believe that a discussion of the Texas state benefits for veterans can help inform the policy this committee desires to enact.
The most prominent program which benefits the veterans of Texas is the Hazlewood Act. This program provides qualified veterans, spouses and dependent children with an education benefit of up to 150 hours of tuition exemption, including most fees at public institutions of higher education in Texas. It does not include living expenses, books or supply fees. The Hazlewood Act is also extended to spouses and dependent children of eligible active duty, Texas National Guard, and Air National Guard Veterans who died in the line of duty or as a result of injury or illness directly related to military service, are missing in action, or who become totally disabled for purposes of employability as a result of service-related injury or illness.
The use of the Hazlewood provision has exploded in the past several years. In 2007, the program at Texas A&M included 148 veteran students, totaling $679K tuition and fees benefit. In fiscal year 2012, the number rose to 285 veteran students, totaling $1.6M. With the expansion of Hazlewood benefits to dependents, the total benefit to veterans and their families at Texas A&M stands at $9.4M. Statewide public universities provided this benefit to 4,549 veteran students in 2007, totaling $14.6M. In 2012, that number grew to 8,444 veteran students, totaling $37.3M in tuition and fees benefit.
Texas A&M wholeheartedly supports these exemptions and the students who use them. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention the growing financial consequences of this program to our University, especially with the expansion in 2009 to allow dependents to receive the Hazlewood Act benefits. In short, the exemption results in foregone revenue to the institution in what is typically considered an unfunded mandate, since there is currently no state reimbursement or other payment. Given that the growth in this program comes at a time when funding for state universities across the nation is being cut, sometimes drastically (Texas A&M was cut by 14% in state general revenue funding for FY12 and FY13), it is difficult for universities to maintain services and programs without this revenue. The Texas Legislature is currently considering ways to address this issue to ensure that Texas universities can continue to offer these benefits.
Also relevant to H.R. 357 are two programs through which Texas A&M currently provides resources specifically for non-resident veterans; the Military Personnel Waiver and the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program (Yellow Ribbon Program).
The Military Personnel Waiver is provided through Texas Education Code section 54.058. Current members of the Armed Forces, veterans, and their spouses and children who meet certain eligibility requirements may receive the waiver. Veterans must intend to establish residency in Texas to receive this waiver.
The Yellow Ribbon Program is a provision of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. This program allows institutions of higher learning to voluntarily enter into an agreement with VA to fund tuition expenses that exceed the in-state tuition and fee rates. The institution can contribute up to 50% of those expenses and VA will match the same amount as the institution. Texas A&M University participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program because we want to ensure all veterans, even those who are non-residents, can have their tuition and fees covered if they have the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
To quantify, Texas A&M has 56 non-resident veterans for the spring 2013 semester, which represents less than 10% of our total veteran student population. Twenty of these students are eligible for the Military Personnel Waiver, 16 for a competitive scholarship waiver, and 2 for the Yellow Ribbon Program. Thus, 20 students for spring 2013 are paying out-of-state tuition. We are fully aware that the numbers of non-resident veterans vary across the state and nation, and that other states and possibly other schools in Texas may not be in a similar situation. We also note that there is a greater impact on institutions with extensive distance education programs.
In summary, Texas has numerous policies in place that generously benefit veterans, which Texas A&M has embraced. The spirit of H.R. 357 runs parallel to the spirit of support Texas A&M has provided its students who are veterans. We have examined the bill in detail and offer some suggestions for your consideration, which we believe will improve the ability for universities to provide this benefit to the veteran.
First, residency for tuition purposes at public universities is usually under the purview of state legislatures; this is certainly true in Texas. The proposed implementation date of the bill provides insufficient time for states to address this issue if they choose to do so given the timing of state legislative cycles. As a result, public institutions will not be able to comply and all veterans (and their dependents) will lose the ability to utilize their benefits, not just those classified as a non-resident. At Texas A&M, 100% of the veterans would be negatively impacted when only 3.3% are currently not receiving in-state tuition rates. A potential solution is to simply delay implementation another year or two to enable states to comply through established legislative procedures.
Another option would be to change the language from “…unless the institution charges tuition and fees for a veteran at the same rate as the institution charges for residents of the State…” in section 2, subsection (c) to “unless the institution’s net charges to a veteran, after federal veteran benefits, waivers, scholarships, and grants are applied, is at the same rate as the institution charges for residents of the State…”. This would allow institutions flexibility in how to meet this requirement through other means. By making this change, an institution, even in a state that does not grant residency for tuition purposes, could provide other financial assistance to the student to accomplish the same effect. While this may cost institutions some funding, it would preserve the ability to receive funding from the VA to cover the tuition charges to provide better overall veteran educational benefit support.
It should be noted that private institutions are not impacted by this bill. In essence, it only requires public universities to provide a lower tuition rate for veterans and results in additional forgone revenue. Public institutions want to do their part to serve the veteran. Providing a mechanism to allow funding currently being received by public institutions through the VA to continue will lessen the impact of another unfunded mandate that either shifts the costs of higher education onto other students, or drives up the overall cost for everyone in order to recover lost revenue.
The overarching concern is to ensure that the veteran receives the maximum benefit while not placing institutions in a position of shifting costs throughout the university that would hinder the educational mission including current or expanded veteran services.
Thank you again for providing this opportunity for me and Texas A&M to discuss this important legislation and for your leadership in support of our veterans.