Veteran questions UNC tuition policy, starts online petition
The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.
PEMBROKE, N.C. — A former Army sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg has started an online petition calling for the UNC Board of Governors to end what she says is discrimination against student veterans.
Hayleigh Perez, who served four years and was honorably discharged in 2009, was denied in-state tuition at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke last fall.
Perez and her husband, who is still an active-duty service member, transferred to Texas in 2009, then returned to Fort Bragg earlier this year. All the while, the couple maintained a home in Raeford which they purchased in 2008.
Because she was denied in-state status, her tuition costs at UNCP were not fully covered by the GI Bill. A year ago, the GI Bill program quit paying out-of-state rates at public colleges and universities.
"I believe that the UNC system took advantage of my situation and discriminated against me as a veteran to pocket $4,603.50; the difference not covered by my Post 9/11 GI Bill," Perez said in the petition.
UNCP Chancellor Kyle Carter issued a statement Wednesday on the university's website in which he reiterates the university's pledge to serve military-related students. About 800 military-related students are enrolled at UNCP.
"However, as a state institution, UNC Pembroke is required to evaluate residency petitions using a prescribed state process," Carter said in the statement. "... We are disappointed to read news reports of misleading statements attributed to Ms. Perez that tarnish UNC Pembroke's excellent reputation and relationship with our military. While I cannot speak to Ms. Perez's case specifically, I assure the public her case was handled professionally, deliberately and objectively."
Perez's story has gained national media attention. The petition, which can be viewed at change.org/petitions/unc-board-of-governors-stop-discriminat ing-against-student-veterans, has received more than 138,000 supporters since going live last week.
The petition calls for a mandate from the Board of Governors telling its 16-member campuses to implement consistent rules for labeling veterans as in-state students.
Perez believes the discrimination to be a systemic problem, not just with one school.
"We (veterans) deserve the benefits we were promised," she said.
Perez said when she learned last fall that her family had received orders to return to the Fort Bragg area, she applied to Fayetteville State University and UNCP with the intent of starting classes in January.
"We chose to make North Carolina our home and when the Army took us away we fought to return," she said.
Both schools accepted her. But while FSU decided Perez was a North Carolina resident, UNCP said she wasn't.
Carter acknowledged that while FSU came to a different determination, the State Residency Committee confirmed UNC-Pembroke's decision.
Joni Worthington, vice president for communications for the UNC system, said Wednesday that UNCP applied the same guidelines in Perez's case that it does to all students applying to any UNC campus. She also said Perez failed to supply the state committee with documentation supporting her claim, which is why the committee upheld the school's decision.
Preferring UNCP, Perez enrolled there believing she could easily appeal the decision. But she said she was met with "hostility and aggression."
Perez said because of the "demeaning" way she was treated, she decided to transfer to Methodist University for the spring. Her cost is below the GI Bill's cap on benefits for attending private universities, but she said that hasn't stopped her from fighting for other veterans.
"Hundreds of thousands of veterans across the country are facing an arduous battle proving their residency to a state because of the unique circumstances that encompass our military duties," the petition reads.
Perez said she was told during a meeting Tuesday with representatives from the UNC system that the rules applying tuition status to veterans are gray.
She said she has teamed up with Student Veterans Advocacy Group in hopes of promoting nationwide legislation that will eliminate the inconsistencies for applying tuition status for military students.
Worthington said a Fox News report about Perez's petition inaccurately referred to a 2007 article regarding in-state residency for undocumented immigrants. Worthington told The Fayetteville Observer on Wednesday this information was taken out of context and has had no bearing on Perez's case.
Worthington said in 2007 that a statewide board called UNC Tomorrow was established by the Board of Governors. Among a host of other issues, the board was tasked with examining the pros and cons of granting residency status to immigrants who had lived in North Carolina most, if not all, of their lives. She said the board never made any recommendation on the topic and that no change to its residency policy was being considered.