Tuition Exemptions for Veterans Under the Microscope

Proposed changes to the state policy that waives tuition and most fees for veterans and members of their families are on a list of legislative recommendations up for final approval by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on Thursday.

The policy has been a hot topic of internal discussion at universities around the state, which are increasingly under financial strain as the state broadens the pool of individuals eligible to have their tuition waived under what is known as the Hazlewood Act, which grants the exemption for veterans, and the Hazlewood Legacy Act, which allows veterans to transfer their exempted credit hours — up to 150 — to their dependents.

The amount of forgone tuition and fee revenue has increased dramatically since the 2009 passage of the Legacy Act by state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. No state money was appropriated to cover the cost of educating the students, which is subsequently eaten by the institutions — and some worry that the bite out of college and university budgets is getting to be too big.

In the last three years, the number of people receiving some form of Hazlewood exemption has ballooned by 129 percent.  Institutions had to forgo $24 million in tuition and fees in fiscal year 2009, but by fiscal year 2011, the total statewide had grown to $72 million.

Kelly Davis, vice president for business affairs and controller at the University of Texas at Arlington — where total exemptions jumped from $3.5 million to $5.2 million in the last year — said it was creating a difficult dilemma.

“We all support veterans and veterans’ benefits, so it’s not the idea that we don’t support the exemption. It’s just that we need some relief helping us cover that lost revenue in light of state budget cuts,” she said, noting that UT-Arlington declined to increase tuition this year.

The coordinating board is expected to recommend creating a pool of state money to reimburse institutions for at least some of the program costs. The total amount would be determined by the legislators and distributed according to the costs at each institution.

Dominic Chavez, a spokesman for the coordinating board, said the proposal might be a long shot in a session during which the board is otherwise not anticipating any funding increases, but it signals that the board is aware of the issue.

Some other recommendations could have the potential to actually further expand the pool of individuals eligible for exemptions.

Already, as University of Houston bursar Gene Gillis said, “The potential is really huge. I only see the number growing. It’s definitely not going to get smaller.”

Recommendations that the board is set to consider would encourage lawmakers to clarify that there is no age limit for actual veterans who want to avail themselves of the opportunity — only their children must be under 25 — and that family members of fallen soldiers are still be eligible for the program. Veterans currently living out of state would also be able to take advantage of the program.

Chavez said the effects of the proposed changes are currently unknown. “It’s in the eye of the beholder,” he said, noting that a significant change is making sure all veterans and their families are receiving the benefits to which they’re entitled. “But on paper, it will look like an expansion.”

Universities may not object to such a proposal in principle, but what it means to their budgets in practice may cause concern. “There is nobility in extending this, not only to the military personnel and veterans, but to their children,” said Matt Flores, a spokesman at Texas State University, where veteran exemptions under Hazlewood last year totaled $3.2 million and Legacy exemptions totaled $6.4 million. “But if the burden falls on the universities themselves to shoulder the cost, especially at the rate students are coming into the universities, it becomes problematic.”

Universities must be careful about how they discuss the program and any potential expansion — particularly that word “burden.”

In the spring, R. Bowen Loftin, the president of Texas A&M University, which granted more than $9 million in total exemptions last year, apparently used the “B” word in reference to the program in an interview with the Bryan College-Station Eagle. In an editorial that ran across the state, Van de Putte said the lack of funding for Hazlewood is not the problem, rather that broader cuts to higher education are at fault. “If there's blame, let's put it where it belongs — with the members of the Legislature who have refused to invest in higher education, including that of children whose fathers and mothers have given so much for us,” she wrote.

She also noted the generous salaries of the state’s leading college sports teams, writing, “Now, I'm a die-hard sports fan. And yeah, I know — those athletic programs have their own budgets and don't use taxpayer dollars. But with that kind of money in school coffers, can no resources be found for veterans' scholarships? What does that say about our priorities?”

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