The Choice Act and Veterans’ Education

By Suzanne Hultin | Vol . 23, No. 19 | May 2015

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • Between 2012 and 2013, there was a 15 percent increase in the number of veterans and dependents who received education benefits.
  • More than $12 million was spent on veterans’ education benefits in 2013, $10 million of which went to the Post-9/11 GI Bill program.
  • Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas have the most veterans receiving education benefits.

The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 (Choice Act)—signed by President Barack Obama last August—has important implications for states. The $16.3 billion U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) makeover includes $10 billion to allow veterans unable to obtain a timely appointment within the VA health care system to receive care from outside providers. It also includes $5 billion so the VA can hire more doctors and nurses, and $1.3 billion to finance leases for 27 new VA facilities across the United States.

In addition to improving veterans’ access to health care, the Choice Act also includes provisions related to education. Section 702 of the law requires public universities to offer recent veterans and other “covered individuals” in-state tuition, regardless of state residency status, starting July 1, 2015. Universities that do not comply would no longer be able to accept Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. The law defines “covered individuals” as veterans who have served on active duty for at least 90 days since Sept. 10, 2001, and who enroll in the school within three years of discharge. It also includes the spouses and children of veterans who are using benefits transferred from a veteran.

Since its 2008 passage, the Post 9/11-GI Bill has paid in-state tuition for thousands of veterans, but it does not cover the cost difference for out-of-state tuition, which can be more than $13,310 a year in some states. Although some veterans have been able to apply for additional funds through programs such as the Yellow Ribbon Program, not all veterans are eligible, and these funds are limited. Veterans who are considered out-of-state students often have to decide between taking out loans to cover non-residency costs or wait up to 12 months to gain residency.

State Action

Many states have taken the lead in waiving residency requirements for veterans at public institutions over the last few years. Prior to the 2015 legislative sessions, half the states had enacted legislation, and dozens of state university and community college systems had adopted system-wide policies to grant immediate in-state tuition for veterans. However, in order to be fully compliant with the new federal law, most states and university systems are in the process of amending current law or drafting new legislation to include all covered individuals prior to the July 1 deadline.

As of April 20, 2015, at least 12 states—Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, New York, Texas, Utah and Wyoming—were fully compliant with section 702 of the Choice Act. Another seven states—Illinois, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia—were actively pursuing legislative or regulatory changes to become compliant. States have chosen to become compliant either through state legislation, board of regents regulations or emergency regulations. Examples of these state actions are below.

The University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents adopted a revised out-of-state tuition waiver policy (Section 7.3.4.1) in September 2014, which expanded eligibility for military waivers in conformance with Section 702.

In March, Kentucky’s governor put in place an emergency regulation to bring the state into compliance with Section 702 (13 KAR 2:045E). The emergency regulation specifies that any person eligible for benefits under the Post-9/11 GI bill or any other federal law affecting veterans is entitled to resident status. The emergency regulation will be rescinded once identical state legislation is enacted.

The South Dakota Legislature passed SB 33 in March. The bill specifies that any person living in the state is classified as a resident student if the person receives veteran’s educational benefits pursuant to the Post-9/11 GI bill and Choice Act.

Wyoming SB 101, enacted in March, amends a previous statute to include resident tuition for a veteran’s spouse or children and eliminates the requirement that veterans take steps to establish residency in order to receive in-state tuition.

Federal Action

Because of concerns that many states will not be compliant by July 1, Congress introduced legislation to extend implementation of Section 702 of the Choice Act by one year (US H.R. 475). The legislation also further defines who qualifies as a “covered individual.” Although passage of this bill would result in a longer implementation period, it also would require many of the states that currently are compliant to make additional changes to their policies to include the new covered individuals.

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