Tuition breaks help combat veterans at MU

Thursday, July 3, 2008 | 7:34 p.m. CDT; updated 4:54 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — A new state law and the updated federal G.I. Bill promise combat veterans at MU and other public universities a big break on a college education.

“A lot of veterans don’t realize the cost of the tuition but also the cost of college in general,” said Daniel Sewell, the Mizzou Student Veterans Association president and an active duty member of the U.S. Air Force for five years in Germany and Afghanistan. “People in active duty were in a mindset that everything was taken care for them. Now they have to figure out how to go back to school, but also they have to worry about tuition. What this tuition reduction does is take out one of those major obstacles.”

Last week, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder signed the Missouri Returning Heroes’ Act. The law, sponsored by Sen. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, requires public universities to charge combat veterans just $50 per credit hour for undergraduate coursework. Combat veterans are defined as Missouri residents who served in armed combat after Sept. 11, 2001, and were honorably discharged.

To receive the tuition break, the veterans must maintain a grade point average of 2.5 on a 4.0 scale. The bill, which will go into effect August 28, applies only to public colleges and universities.

Tuition for undergraduate Missouri residents in the University of Missouri System is nearly $236 per credit hour, according to the UM System Web site. MU spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken said there are 203 veterans enrolled at MU.

Veterans at MU said the tuition break will help not only financially but also in relieving some of the stress they face when getting back to school.

MU senior Nick Haynes, who served in the U.S. Navy for seven years and made several trips across Asia and Australia, said combat veterans can often face a harder time getting student loans because of formulas used to calculate financial need.

“The challenges faced by veterans returning to society can sometimes be overwhelming,” said Haynes, who used a combination of federal funding, student loans and work to pay for his education in political science and pre-law. “With regards to tuition, they can sometimes be greater than those faced by civilians. Due to the age factor and military experience, the use of parents as a fallback in order to help cover the gap is something veterans cannot use.”

MU senior Jordan Worley served in the U.S. Army Reserve and said the law would relieve some of the trouble veterans face in focusing when they return to school.

“Tuition is getting pretty high up here,” said Worley, who served in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “If I can get some kind of break for doing what I did, I appreciate that.”

Each university will cover the difference between the $50 per credit hour that veterans pay and the cost of regular tuition. The university then can go to the Missouri General Assembly and ask for reimbursement. Coleman said she hopes the legislature will be able to reimburse universities but that it depends on whether the state has the revenue to do so.

“It’s the legislature saying to universities and colleges, ‘Do it,’ so I think we should reimburse them,” Coleman said.

If the state does not appropriate money for reimbursement, a university will still be subject to providing the tuition break and covering the costs. Banken said it is too early to tell how this law will affect MU financially.

The new GI Bill

Meanwhile, President George Bush on Monday signed the new GI Bill, another piece of legislation meant to aid veterans. It updates the original GI Bill from World War II and will cover up to the cost of the most expensive public school in each state, a monthly housing stipend based on the school’s location and an extra $1,000 each year for books.

To qualify for the benefits, a veteran has to have served at least 90 days of active duty service after Sept. 11, 2001. The percentage of the rate received depends on the length of active duty time served.

“This only compounds the help that veterans will be getting and I think it will be a major incentive for people to join the service as well,” Sewell said. “The GI Bill is one of the reasons I joined the military.”

The previous GI Bill benefits were up to $1,101 monthly. Coleman said she sponsored the Returning Heroes’ Act when she realized the old version didn’t cover enough of veterans’ college costs.

According to the text of the Returning Heroes Act, “The tuition limitation will be provided after all other aid for which the veteran is eligible has been applied, and no combat veteran shall receive more than the actual cost of attendance when the limitation is combined with other aid made available to such veteran.”

If a veteran receives aid from the federal GI Bill, he or she will be provided the Missouri tuition break only if the federal aid does not cover the cost of going to school. Furthermore, the new GI Bill doesn’t take effect until Aug. 30, 2009, and could apply to all veterans, while the Missouri legislation applies just to combat veterans.

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