Veterans may get a more affordable education

Wednesday, February 13, 2008 | 8:34 p.m. CST; updated 7:39 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Combat veterans from Missouri would get a cheaper college education if the state Senate approves a bill given first-round approval Wednesday.

The Missouri Returning Heroes’ Education Act, sponsored by Sen. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, would require public universities to charge combat veterans $50 per credit hour for undergraduate coursework.

“Everybody seems to understand the importance that our military personnel has provided and believes that the state should be supportive of their educational options,” Coleman said.

The bill would require combat veterans to maintain a grade point average of 2.5 in order to receive the tuition break. Combat veterans are defined as Missouri residents who served in armed combat after Sept. 11, 2001 and were honorably discharged.

Basic tuition for undergraduate Missouri residents in the UM System is nearly $236 per credit hour, according to the campuses’ Web sites. The state’s second-largest university, Missouri State University in Springfield, charges $179 per credit hour, according to its Web site.

Under the bill, schools could first apply federal grants and state scholarships toward military veterans’ tuition costs. The remaining tuition would then be reduced to $50 per credit hour. Students would still have to pay for books and board.

Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, introduced and later withdrew an amendment that would have made the military tuition break subject to state funding.

He said his concern with the bill is who will be responsible for paying for the tuition. If an average student pays $300 per credit hour and veterans pay $50, someone must pick up the $250 difference, Shields said.

“We as a state ought to pay for that, versus colleges and universities doing a cost shift over to other students,” Shields said. “It either gets cost-shifted back to the students, which is what your bill will do, or it will get cost-shifted back to the state, which is what my amendment will do.”

But Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said Shields’ amendment catered to MU.

“This is an amendment to kill the bill,” Crowell said. “It infuriates me to no end that you’re yielding to the ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ university.”

He said it should not matter where the funds come from.

“We give enough money to that university that they could put another chair in that classroom and educate these veterans accordingly,” he said.

Coleman said many negotiations took place with MU in an effort to get the Senate’s voice approval, which the bill gained Tuesday.

“We’ve made a lot of concessions in bringing this legislation out of committee and on to this floor, but they keep wanting more,” she said.

UM System spokesman Scott Charton said MU wants the legislature to make a fiscally responsible decision.

“We have asked for support in finding ways to help pay for the bill,” he said. “We have the greatest respect for the men and women who serve our country as evidenced through our efforts in the system’s many financial aid offices.”

But Charton said the legislature should be responsible for its own idea.

“If it’s worthy of the state’s attention, it’s worthy of the state’s financial support,” he said.

A legislative staff report on the bill noted that the university had estimated a $2.4 million price tag for an earlier version of the proposal.

Shields eventually withdrew his amendment, but he said he is still concerned over where the funds for the veterans will come from.

“We all want to be patriotic,” he said. “The question is whose money are we being patriotic with.”

The measure now requires a final roll-call vote before it can go to the House.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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