U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. ruled on Monday that the University of Houston could not deny a veteran free tuition benefits granted under the Texas Hazlewood Act because he was a resident of another state when he enrolled in the military.
The case was brought by Keith Harris, an honorably discharged veteran and law student at UH in May 2014. Though he has been a legal resident of Texas since 2004, he was denied the tuition benefits granted to Texas residents who are also veterans because, when he enlisted in 1996 at age 18, he was a resident of Georgia.
Harris argued, according to the original complaint, that the requirement that one live in Texas when they enlist in order to receive benefits "discriminates between different types of current Texas residents in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of Fourteenth Amendment and the fundamental right to travel protected by the U.S. Constitution."
On Monday, Werlein sided with Harris against the state.
By expanding the eligible pool of Hazlewood beneficiaries, the ruling could cost the state millions of dollars and add fuel to the fire of simmering concern about the Hazlewood program, which has been expanding at a fast clip.
In 2009, the Legislature passed the Hazlewood Legacy Act, which allows veterans to to transfer their unused tuition-free credit hours to their children. With little financial support from the state, the cost of providing education to ex-soldiers and their families has fallen to the higher education institutions.
Since the expansion to include offspring, the program's cost has jumped from $24.7 million to $169 million. It is projected to rise to $286.2 million by 2017.
Earlier this month, the chancellors of the state's six university systems called for lawmakers to fully fund the benefits they have granted. Gov. Greg Abbott has also advocated for providing full funding for the program.
However, addressing the plight of the institutions has proven tricky over the years. Last session, an endowment was created to provide some relief, but it barely makes a dent in the amount needed to cover the growing number of eligible veterans and their families.
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