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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Virginia veterans and dependents lambast policymakers over cuts to tuition waivers

Policymakers responsible for voting for a budget that cut spending for a tuition waiver program for military dependents sat and listened as veteran after veteran expressed their disappointment.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Retired U.S. Navy Seal Jason Redman spoke about the difference between the term earned versus entitled Monday at the first task force meeting for the Preserving Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program at the Virginia War Memorial.

"The definition of entitled, according to Dictionary.com, is believing oneself to be inherently deserving of privileges for special treatment," Redman, who was shot eight times on an operation to capture a high-ranking member of Al Qaeda, said. "While the definition of earned is to gain deservedly in return for one's behavior or achievements." 

Veterans and their families lined up to speak in front of policymakers who had made significant cuts to a tuition waiver program for military dependents. 

"You are saying that it is too hard to sustain this program to families that are burying a loved one for your freedom, to warriors who have endured the loss of limb, eyesight, function, disfigurement and permanent disability and the families that have endured countless surgeries and carry the colossal impact of the invisible wounds of war," Redman said. "I hope you can now see the massive distinction between an entitlement and something that has been earned through blood and sacrifice."

Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin established the task force to address budget cuts to the program he and the General Assembly agreed to in May. The program offers tuition waivers and stipends for dependents to attend Virginia public universities.

Youngkin and the Democratic-controlled legislature made significant criteria changes for applicants that would significantly cut the program's spending. Changes included: reenacting a domicile requirement, limiting awards to first undergraduate degrees, requiring completion of the FAFSA and restoring a satisfactory academic progress requirement

The cuts grandfathered all existing students and any new students who formally committed by May 15, 2024. Applicants were given less than 48 hours from when the budget passed on May 13 to May 15 to submit applications under the previous criteria.

After receiving a wave of criticism from the veteran community, Youngkin changed course and asked the legislature to meet for a special session on June 28 to repeal the criteria changes. 

The task force includes Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Senator Louise Lucas, House Appropriations Committee Chair Luke Torian and General John P. Jumper, Chairman-elect of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Other stakeholders invited include Virginia public university presidents, who lobbied against the program, and veteran organizations. A select few advocates of the program were also included. 

Veterans and their families spent the afternoon speaking to the 25-plus-member task force. Tears were shed as one after another speaker shared their and their families' sacrifices.

Retired U.S. Army officer Brian Smith received a 100% disability rating from the Office of Veterans Affairs.

"I never made a promise to my daughter. I never promised her that I'd be at a particular birthday. I never promised her that I would be at a particular Christmas or graduation because I knew we couldn't keep that promise," Smith said. 

When he received the rating, Smith finally promised his daughter that her education would be cared for.

"I promised her that because she knew that she was owed something because of all the times that daddy goes and locks himself in the library and stares off into space for hours," Smith said. "She's owed that for all the times that daddy grabs onto a bottle instead of her hand." 

Legislators did not vote on the changes individually, leaving little space for public input. Instead, the cuts were included in budget language.

"Few in the Commonwealth have sacrificed more for this country than the veterans, first responders and families who have been impacted by this change," Gold Star spouse Donna Lewis said. "The General Assembly, whose members have been largely insulated from the scars of war, did not believe our sacrifices were worthy of a thoughtful, thorough decision-making process before this language was drafted feels like institutional betrayal in its cruelest form."

Lawmakers defended the cuts as a way to keep the growing program sustainable. Criteria for applicants widening and the increase in college-age dependents from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are cited as reasons for the growth. 

Public universities, which bear the cost of the waivers, claim they hike other students' tuition to pay.

"Public institutions of higher learning were founded with the mission of advancing the public good, not making a profit," said Kristen Fenty, another Gold Star spouse. "These institutions have billions of dollars in endowments."

Veteran Christy McGinnis singled out Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao, who did not attend the first meeting despite being named to the task force. VCU is one of the state's top providers of dependent waivers. 

"I wish President Rao was here so I can tell them directly just how insulting it is to veterans to blame rising tuition costs on our children rather than on things such as purchasing 22 acres to build an athlete's village at the cost of some $80 million," McGinnis said before speaking directly to the legislators. "Do the right thing not because you think it's going to earn you the veterans' vote or because it's going to give you some good partisan dig points, do the right thing because it is the right thing."

Virginia has offered free and reduced college educations for dependents of military members killed or disabled in combat since the 1930s.

Categories / Education, Government, Politics, Regional

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