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Universities Plead for Help With Hazlewood

School officials say the cost of providing free tuition for veterans and their dependents is growing at an unsustainable pace. Lawmakers in the House are considering tweaks to the law.

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As an Air Force veteran who was wounded in Iraq, Jason Larzelere qualifies for enough federal aid that he can forgo a state program established to pay for his Texas A&M education.

But a bill Texas lawmakers passed in 2009 lets him benefit anyway; he can pass the state’s offer of free tuition on to a future child.

“For me, I was 100 percent thinking I was going to pass it on if I have kids,” he said.

That option is wildly popular among veterans. But for college campuses, it's becoming a growing burden. Last fiscal year, the program cost state universities $169 million in lost tuition. That number could grow to $379 million by 2019, according to the Legislative Budget Board. 

On Wednesday, university leaders begged for relief. The program, known as Hazlewood, is admirable, they said. But schools need help paying for it and slowing its growth, they said during a hearing of House Higher Education Committee.

“We are to the point where I can’t keep deferring costs to successfully meet the mission of our institution academically,” said Gene Bourgeois, provost at Texas State University.

During the two-hour meeting, school officials gave numerous examples of rising costs. At Texas A&M-Kingsville, for instance, waiving tuition for veterans and their dependents cost $157,000 in 2008. In 2014, that expense had grown to $1.9 million. The current amount totals almost 5 percent of the university’s entire budget, said Steven Tallant, the school’s president. 

Meanwhile, the cost was more than $10 million in 2014 at the University of Texas at San Antonio. And at Texas A&M University, the cost is expected to be $18 million this year. 

Exempting that much tuition leads to difficult choices, the university officials said. Without help from the state to cover veterans’ tuition, the schools either have to raise costs for non-veteran students or cut programs.

The impact on tuition could be huge if all of those costs were passed on to non-veteran students. At Texas State, the Hazlewood costs average out to about $450 per non-veteran student. At A&M-Kingsville, the expense is $273 per student. 

“While I deeply, deeply believe in Hazlewood, I am also a university of students with modest means,” said Tallant, who served in the Navy and Air Force before coming to A&M-Kingsville. “No matter how we look at this, [the students] are paying for this. It’s an issue of social justice.” 

Committee members on Wednesday expressed support for helping the schools. The challenge, they said, is figuring out how.

“It is clear that the burden the state is asking our institutions to bear is unsustainable,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, the committee’s chairman and author of one of two bills the committee is reviewing. 

Proposed changes to the law include limiting the number of free class hours to 120, increasing the minimum number of days served overseas needed to qualify and requiring students to seek other forms of federal aid to supplement the state assistance. Lawmakers are also discussing changing the residency requirements after a federal judge ruled in January that the law as it's currently written can’t deny free tuition to Texas residents who enlisted in the military in another state.

University officials said they like those ideas, but also need financial help. The two-year budgets passed by the House and Senate this month each include about $30 million to help the universities. That covers a small fraction of the universities’ financial burdens, though lawmakers could add more money in conference committee. To keep the Hazlewood program sustainable, more money is needed, the schools said. 

Larzelere said he and other veterans on the A&M campus appreciate the benefit, even if they aren’t using it now. But he said most recognize the need to add some restrictions so the program can survive. 

“You would hate to see it go away, because it gives people the opportunity to go to school that couldn’t afford it,” he said. “But we want what’s best for the state budget, too.”

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at San Antonio are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. Find a full list of donors and sponsors here.

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