Students advocate for higher education options for vets

Members of the Student Veterans Association (SVA) are backing two state legislation bills that would allow U.S. Armed Services veterans pursuing higher education to be considered Florida residents for tuition purposes.

Senate Bill 826, sponsored by Sen. Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey), and House Bill 683, sponsored by Rep. Luis Garcia Jr. (D-Miami), each aim to amend Florida Statute 1009.21, which determines the residency status of students for the purpose of tuition costs in post-secondary educational programs offered by state universities, community colleges, charter technical career centers or career centers operated by school districts.

Since the bills were filed in early February, the SVA has been active in their support, setting up a Facebook page, a Twitter feed and a Web page dedicated to updating veterans and writing to representatives in both legislative bodies. SVA Legislative Officer William Boland, a junior majoring in nursing and a retired Army specialist, said he is optomisitic about the bills’ future. However, he does have some concerns.

For the bills to become law they will need to be approved by both the Senate and House of Representatives, he said, before being signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

“It’s tough to gauge (if the bills will pass),” Boland said. “Everybody says they support it, but the big fight is whether it fiscally helps or hinders the state of Florida.”

He said the argument against the bills is that by allowing veterans to pay in-state tuition rather than out-of-state where applicable, the state would lose money.

“If you’re an out-of-state student you’re paying about $17,000 a year, for an in-state student you’re paying $4,000 to $5,000,” he said. “But what they don’t see is it’s federally guaranteed money, they come with the GI Bill which also pays for housing. So there you have another person in Florida, another person working in Florida – it’s actually beneficial.”

Robert Smith, a senior majoring in nursing, is originally from Philadelphia. He paid about $8,000 in out-of-state tuition for the spring 2011 semester. An Army veteran, Smith was a sergeant in the infantry who served overseas in Bosnia and spent a month in Afghanistan. After leaving the Army he owned a business in Florida and served in the Florida National Guard, but has been unable to attain in-state residency.

“I’ve got the GI Bill and I bartend,” Smith said. “The GI Bill pays, I think, 80 percent of my tuition and I have to pay the other 20 percent.”

Smith is taking 16 credit hours, is a bartender at Babalouie’s Grill and Sports Garden and is a single father to his 11-year-old daughter.

“We do have the GI Bill, and they do pay, but the thing is, (veterans are) very limited for time with studies, and I still have to work to pay (what the GI Bill doesn’t),” he said. “(The bills) are great for all veterans, especially those who are trying to get the in-state tuition. It would be nice if they could. I fought for 50 states, not just one.”

Boland and others within the SVA have established a Web page to raise support for the bills to help students like Smith:

SVA Communication Team Leader Adrienne Trautman is a senior majoring in management information systems and former Navy petty officer third class. If Florida doesn’t pass the bills, she said she feels it will put itself in danger of losing a strong veteran workforce.

“It’s a question of whether they can finish school and stay here in the state of Florida to do it,” Trautman said. “We’re veterans. You’re always being moved around when you’re in the military, so when you’re able to find a place of your own, it would be nice to stay there. But if you can’t find the education you need or desire, you’re going to go somewhere else to find it, so I think Florida is going to lose out on a lot of knowledgeable, dedicated, very loyal citizens if they don’t help them out in this way.”

Trautman said there is a rising trend of veteran assistance in other states. Arizona, Kentucky, Virginia, California, Texas and Rhode Island are considering similar bills. Ohio, Michigan and New Mexico already have similar programs in place according to Boland and Trautman.

“With other opportunities available we should do all we can to assist our veterans in receiving the best education that can be offered in the state of Florida,” Trautman said.