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Veterans face confusion using GI Bill at state universities

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“If we contributed to the security of our country, isn’t that worth more than having lived in a state in a year?” one veteran said. “It just seems kind of silly.”

In choosing to serve her country in uniform, Hayleigh Lynn Perez knowingly accepted a nomadic life. Now, the former Army sergeant says she and thousands of other veterans trying to get a higher education are being penalized for that enforced rootlessness.

Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the federal government will pick up the full in-state cost for any honorably discharged service member wishing to attend a public college or university. But, because the often intricate rules governing residency differ from state to state, and even within university systems, many veterans face a bewildering battle to exercise the benefits they’ve already fought for.

“It is part of our contractual agreement when we join the military,” says Perez, who filed a $10 million federal civil rights lawsuit against the University of North Carolina Board of Governors after one of its schools denied her resident status. “It’s been paid for—with blood and sweat and tears and deployments.”

Until last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would cover up to the highest rate charged for in-state students at a public school in that state. But under changes that took effect in August 2011, while veterans can receive up to $17,500 a year for study at private schools, the agency will pay only “the actual net cost for in-state tuition and fees assessed” by the public institution the veteran is attending.

And if that person is deemed a nonresident, the veteran often must pay the difference out of pocket.

“For the first time since the inception of the GI Bill, residency for tuition purposes is now an issue for thousands of veterans,” says Jason Thigpen, founder and president of the Student Veterans Advocacy Group. “Invariably, many are left with no home state for tuition purposes as a result of this change.”

(Next page: What the changes mean for veterans)

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