Congress passes bill to improve access to education for veterans

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Regardless of their state of legal residency, veterans and their immediate families may be able to pay in-state tuition to attend public universities, after Congress passed a bill last week to improve access to education for military retirees.

Part of a comprehensive piece of legislation aimed at reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs, the bill would allow veterans, along with their spouses and dependents, to pay in-state tuition under the GI Bill.Only public universities that wish to continue receiving funding from the federal GI Bill are subject to the provisions of the measure.

“If you had to pay for out-of-state tuition, the GI Bill doesn’t cover all of that,” said Mike Drake, a recent UC Berkeley graduate and former president of Cal Veterans Group, a student organization dedicated to providing resources and mentorship for the student veteran community on campus. “It’s actually a really good way for schools like UC Berkeley to recruit high-achieving veterans from other states.”

Should the reform effort be signed by the president, the tuition benefits will not take effect until 2015. To qualify for GI Bill benefits, veterans must have served in the military for at least 90 days since Sept. 10, 2001.

Tuition rates for most veterans depend on residency requirements, which Drake said can be tricky to establish for veterans, who are a “very fluid population.”

“Paying out-of-state tuition can be a huge deal, especially in California, because everything in California is more expensive,” said Tom Wiltshire, a UC Berkeley junior and vice president of Cal Veterans Group.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, of which UC Berkeley is a member, sent a letter to some members of Congress in June citing concerns that offering in-state tuition for veterans and their families would add financial strain to public universities. It also stated that individual states should be autonomous in their ability to determine in-state residency status.

The UC system enrolls more than 1,600 military veterans, according to UC spokesperson Shelly Meron. At UC Berkeley, 188 self-identified veterans and 284 dependents of veterans were registered last semester, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore.

“The university is currently reviewing the legislation passed by Congress late last week to determine its full impact and any necessary actions needed for implementation across the system,” Meron said in an email.

UC President Janet Napolitano announced the formation of a veterans’ affairs advisory group in February, aimed at helping to form and improve policies affecting student veterans.

Drake and Wiltshire said the measure could draw more veterans to UC Berkeley.

“I think it’ll result in more people going to UC Berkeley,” Wiltshire said. “California is a great place to go to school. UC Berkeley is an especially great place to go to school, especially for veterans.”

The measure is now headed to President Barack Obama’s desk to await his signature before it is implemented into law.

Contact Angel Grace Jennings at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @angeljenningss.