Free tuition, no fees for veterans costing Texas universities millions

Posted Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- The costs of providing free tuition and fees for veterans, which have increased more than five times in six years, are emerging as a growing financial challenge for colleges and universities following more than $1 billion in budget cuts two years ago, say higher education and university officials.

Public-funded colleges and universities, including community colleges, are required to cover the cost of any fees and up to 150 hours of tuition - more than the length of a four-year education - to qualified veterans, spouses and dependent children, according to state officials.

Statewide, the cost for providing the benefit has increased from $19.6 million in 2007 to $110.8 million, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. University and college officials, while stressing their desire to assist veterans and their families, say the costs of providing the free tuition and fees constitute an increasingly costly unfunded mandate.

James Spaniolo, outgoing president of the University of Texas at Arlington, told lawmakers in a House appropriations hearing this week that the cost to UTA was $8.8 millon over the past two years. About 1,800 students at UTA, either veterans or their dependents, use the benefits compared to about 1,000 four years ago, said university spokeswoman Kristin Sullivan.

"It's been growing each year and we expect it to be greater this year," Spaniolo said just days before a University of Texas board of regents meeting today to pick his successor. "Our concern is that while we want to do everything we can to support our veterans, it makes it difficult to do it when the university absorbs the entire cost."

At the University of North Texas, the cost has grown from about $1.5 million to over $7 million, UNT President Lane Rawlins told the Star-Telegram. The number of benefit recipients at UNT has increased from about 250 students in recent years to about 1,100, he said.

"UNT is a veteran-friendly school," said Rawlins. "We want to keep it that way. We're happy to have every veteran who wants to attend UNT, but it is an unfunded mandate. ... When you're talking of numbers of that sort, we have no choice but to cut other things."

No reimbursement

The law was first enacted in the 1920s to assist soldiers who fought in World War I.

It evolved and expanded in ensuing years, reflecting what its supporters say is the state's deeply engrained commitment to its veterans.

It was eventually named after state Sen. Grady Hazlewood of Amarillo, who was known to his contemporaries as the Old Gray Fox, because he championed a major amendment to the law in 1943.

Texas lawmakers passed the Hazlewood Legacy Act in 2009, allowing veterans to pass along any unused portion of the 150 hours of free tuition to their children.

The institutions don't receive reimbursement from the state for the tuition and fees although they do get subsidies for the instructional cost for educating each student.

The Hazlewood Act and the Hazlewood Legacy Act have increasingly come into play with the return of thousands of combat veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of the 38 public universities, 50 community colleges, four technical state colleges and nine health-related institutions, only one institution hasn't been asked to provide the benefit over the past six years, said Dominic M. Chavez, the board's external relations director.

Devastating cuts

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, a champion of veterans' issues who authored the Hazelwood Legacy Act, say university officials didn't began citing the benefit as a problem until after the 2011 Legislature cut state formula-based funding to colleges and universities by more than $ 1 billion.

Most of the schools, including UTA and UNT, are still struggling from the cuts and are seeking to recover at least some of the funding as members of the 2013 Legislature write a new state budget for the next years.

"We did not hear any complaints from any universities until the devastating budget cuts of 2011," said Van de Putte. "Then we started hearing that every dollar counted and they were beginning to feel the squeeze."

A number of university officials have cited Hazelwood cost pressures in making their budget requests to the Legislature. The prevailing consensus among university and college officials is that they want to do their part but that they are going to need help from the state as the number of military enrollees increases.

"I think we all recognize the incredible contributions of our military but I think it comes down to [the fact] that there is real cost associated with [educating veterans]," said David Daniel, president of the University of Texas at Dallas. "And it would be nice to have some revenue to fund it."

About 800 of the university's 20,000 students draw Hazlewood benefits at a cost to the university of about $3 million a year, Daniel said. "You just have a certain number of dollars to operate the university so it means your class sizes are a little bit bigger than they would otherwise be. You just have to absorb those students into the population of the university without any funding for them."

Officials at the Higher Education Coordinating Board have urged the Legislature to look at ways to help universities and college offset the costs, but has not made specific recommendations

"We've had a dramatic increase in the utilization of this program and we're looking at ways to help the universities help the veterans," said state Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, a former UTA faculty member who is vice chairwoman of the House Higher Education Committee.

She is also a member of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee and sits on the appropriations subcommittee that is dealing with the issue.

"At this time, we're just getting into this," Patrick said, adding that lawmakers are just beginning to see the effects of the tuition costs. "The good news is that it's being utilized," she said. "But the institutions are bring to our attention the amount of dollars they are absorbing in this problem."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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