Senate Committee Backs Hazlewood Program Changes

Amid concerns raised about the rising costs of a college tuition program for military veterans, a Texas Senate panel on Wednesday backed a plan that would tighten eligibility rules.

Looking to rein in the growing costs of a state college tuition program that benefits thousands of military veterans and children of veterans, a Texas Senate panel on Wednesday backed a plan that would tighten eligibility rules and slightly trim benefits.

Senate Bill 1735, approved in a 5-1 vote by the Senate Higher Education Committee, comes after public universities in Texas raised alarm about lost revenue from tuition exemptions under the Hazlewood Act.

Last year, the program cost state universities $169 million. That number could grow to $379 million by 2019, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

Currently, veterans who have spent at least 180 days in active duty are eligible for free tuition for up to 150 hours at Texas’ public colleges. Veterans who don’t use that benefit are allowed to pass it on to a dependent.

“Absent any reform, it will become too costly to honor our veterans in this way,” said Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, the bill's author, in explaining the proposed changes.

SB 1735 would require that a veteran serve six years before he or she can pass the tuition benefits on to a dependent. The free tuition hours available to that dependent would then be capped at 60 hours, enough to pay for an associate’s degree or half of a bachelor’s degree. And dependents receiving the benefit would be required to keep at least a 2.5 grade-point average.

The bill doesn’t, however, provide any additional money to help the schools make up for lost tuition revenue from Hazlewood. The House and Senate's proposed 2016-17 budgets each provide about $30 million for that purpose. That's about the same amount as what's in the current budget. 

Birdwell’s legislation has received some slight pushback from veterans groups that don’t want to see the benefits lessened. But universities have expressed wholehearted support, saying the Hazlewood benefits can’t be sustained if some adjustments aren’t made.

The bill will next go to the full Senate. The House Higher Education Committee is considering two similar bills but hasn’t taken action on either one. Representatives expressed support for the idea of tweaking the system at a hearing last week.