NAICU Washington Update

California's $0 for Veterans Raises New Questions on Capitol Hill

May 31, 2009

In mid-April, the tuition allowance for veterans attending private colleges in California dropped overnight from $254 per credit hour to $0.  The change was discovered by a NAICU staffer scrolling through the ever-changing state tuition and fees chart for the new GI Bill Yellow Ribbon Program on the Department of Veteran's Affairs Web site.

The "$0" means that an otherwise qualified veteran who wants to go to a private college in California, walks in the door with no money toward tuition - just $1,000 per term for "fees," a personal living and housing allowance, and a stipend for books.  If the college wants to provide veterans with tuition assistance through the Yellow Ribbon Program, the VA will still match the school's contribution dollar-for-dollar.  However, California is the only state in which a veteran would be without any baseline tuition benefit for a private college to build upon.

The change caught the eye of Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee.  McKeon is a higher education expert, plus a senior member of the Armed Services Committee with expertise in military matters (though the Veteran's Affairs Committee has jurisdiction over the GI Bill).  Now McKeon wants to fix the problem, and has gathered a growing list of congressional co-sponsors from his home state for HR 2474.  If approved, the bill would give the VA unambiguous authority to recognize that, in California, "fees" are equivalent to tuition.

The VA has defended its action by claiming the law requires it to go by the maximum in-state tuition and fees, and that California's in-state tuition is zero.  That's because California has long gotten around the legal requirements of the state's 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, prohibiting public colleges from charging tuition, by calling tuition "fees" instead.

McKeon isn't buying the VA's argument, though, and is questioning why the VA has made such a strong distinction between tuition and fees - especially since many private colleges include most student costs in their tuition figure, while public colleges routinely have higher fees than private colleges in order to keep their tuition figures low.  As an example, the Higher Education Act - which McKeon helps oversee - doesn't make such a distinction in assessing college costs for purposes of student aid.

The VA's approach, using separate ceilings for tuition and fees, hurts veterans attending private colleges across the country by capping both categories.  McKeon knows he can't do much at the moment without jeopardizing the new program's launch on August 1.  However, he has indicated he wants to fix the California problem now, and may be interested in additional reforms for future program years to ensure that veterans have the widest possible range of educational choices.  Additional insight on McKeon's views are on his Web site