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Promise of Free Tuition Could Vanish for Some Veterans' Children

As lawmakers are working to rein in the cost of the Hazlewood program, some veterans are wondering how they'll pay for kids' tuition that they once thought would be free.

A military honor guard practices for Wednesday's memorial ceremony at Fort Hood ceremony on April 9, 2014.

During Troy Reynolds' 24-year post-Army career, he has risen from teaching theater to overseeing curriculum at a Houston-area school district. But he has never sought the top job in his field, superintendent. 

That’s because he’d probably need a doctorate for that position, and doctorates are expensive. Reynolds would rather give one of his kids the free tuition that Texas promises him and other veterans.

“I made a career decision,” said Reynolds, 47. “I decided that I would rather have my child get a bachelor’s degree than have a doctorate for me.”

His sacrifice could soon be for naught. Reynolds has been counting on free school for one of his kids since 2009, when the Legislature began allowing veterans to pass unused tuition benefits on to a dependent. But costs of the tuition program, known as Hazlewood, have spiraled out of control. And legislators now are working on peeling back those benefits.

That means Reynolds may have to find a new, last-minute way to pay for his daughter’s school. Other veterans across the state could experience the same problem – all because of what critics see as poor financial planning by the state.

“That seems absurd to us,” said Jim Brennan, legislative director of the Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations. “That is grossly unfair.”

Poor Estimates

Hazlewood has been available for decades to honorably discharged veterans from Texas who spent at least 180 days on active duty. Each veteran gets 150 free credit hours at a state school. But many of those credits go unused, because most veterans also qualify for federal benefits under the GI Bill.

In 2009, then-Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, raised the idea of allowing veterans to transfer those unused hours to a dependent child. Her proposal was unanimously approved, but some lawmakers now say they didn't understand the idea's true consequences. 

The Legislative Budget Board predicted at the time that the program would have an annual combined cost of $21 million for Texas' public universities by 2014 if Van de Putte's bill passed. That was way off. In December 2014, the LBB estimated that the program actually cost $169.1 million in 2014. That number could grow to $379 million by 2019, the agency said in a report. 

Universities are responsible for covering those costs and have struggled to keep up. School administrators call the program a massive unfunded mandate, and warn that non-Hazlewood students' tuition will have to rise if changes aren't made. 

“Everyone had good intentions, but I don’t think anyone had a clear understanding that it would result in the financial burden that the schools are going to have to absorb,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee.

The program grew because it was wildly popular among veterans. Reynolds said he was thrilled when he heard about it. He had used his GI Bill benefits to pay for his undergraduate education at Sam Houston State University, and then had used some Hazlewood hours to earn a master’s degree at the same school. But he still had more than 100 hours left over. 

With two kids and one income, those extra hours promised to be a huge relief. He was being recruited into a doctoral program at his alma mater, but decided to hold off. The benefit would be better spent on one of his kids, he said.

“I had started saving for college, but I didn’t have a whole lot,” he said. “It was moving very slowly.” 

Reynolds’ 16-year-old son is planning to join the military, so he'll probably be able to use his own Hazlewood benefits. But Reynolds' 14-year-old daughter has talked about attending Sam Houston State or the University of Texas at Austin. Reynolds says he only has about $5,000 in savings, which may not be enough to pay for a semester at UT-Austin. 

“I will probably be able to come up with enough loans to put my kids through Sam Houston State,” he said. “For UT, I can’t do it if I am doing it on my own.”

If he had known that the Hazlewood program could disappear, he said, he could have saved more in the last few years. 

Tighter Restrictions

The full details of Hazlewood's overhaul haven't been finalized. A proposal that passed the Senate by a 24-7 vote on May 5 would require a veteran to serve six years before he or she could pass the benefits on to a child. And those benefits would expire after 15 years, meaning the child would have to be born before the parent left the military in order to benefit. 

The proposal, Senate Bill 1735, was made even stricter when it passed through the House Higher Education Committee. That version would cap free tuition for legacy beneficiaries at 60 hours, half the amount needed for a typical bachelor's degree. 

Zerwas, the House committee chairman, said he expects the bill will be amended by the full House to bring it closer to the Senate’s version before final passage. The final version will also probably include some sort of grandfathering provision so that current juniors and seniors in high school would still qualify for the legacy benefit, he said.

“We are trying to balance fiscal responsibility with living up to as much of the promise and dedication we have made to the veterans,” Zerwas said. 

But most families start saving for college well before their kid is a junior. So a lot of veterans will be hurt by the broken promise, critics say. Reynolds left the Army in 1991, so he will have passed the 15-year cutoff date when his kids are ready for school. 

Younger families will feel the impact, too. Austin veteran Stuart Stribling said his wife joined the military specifically for the Hazlewood benefit. They have a 6-year-old and a 4-month old, so they will probably never be able to use the program if the changes are approved. 

"I understand the financial aspect of it and that it's potentially not sustainable," Stribling said. "But to make the changes and make them retroactively, I think is just wholeheartedly wrong."

Given the difficulty of estimating Hazlewood patterns, it’s hard to say how many veterans’ families would be affected. The Legislative Budget Board didn’t even venture a guess about the fiscal impact of this year's bill. But veterans groups predicted a lot of financial trouble for their members

Enlisted members typically serve for less than four years, said Brennan of the veterans coalition. And in 2011, the Army cut the length of its combat tours to nine months.

“You could have a veteran who serves multiple tours of combat who doesn’t qualify,” Brennan said, “but people who served in the reserves for six years and didn’t go overseas would.”

The people who would benefit the most, Brennan said, would be the career officers who already make more money – the people who need it the least.  

“Clearly higher ed has far more influence and money in the Legislature than we do,” he said.

Disclosure: Sam Houston State University and the University of Texas at Austin are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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