Texas college officials want state to pay veterans' tuition

By LINDSAY ELLIS | Houston Chronicle | Published: September 15, 2016

HOUSTON (Tribune News Service) — Texas university officials urged the state to either absorb millions of dollars in higher education benefits for veterans and their dependents or limit who can access the funds.

During Tuesday's joint hearing before the House higher education and veterans affairs committees, college officials discussed who exactly receives benefits from the Hazlewood Exemption law, which covers college costs for veterans and their dependents under the age of 26. 

The state's colleges have protested the high price of waiving these tuition and related costs – in 2014, that figure was $169.1 million in lost tuition income, officials said – for a population that they say largely consists of veterans’ dependents. Veterans can transfer their unused hours to a dependent through a 2009 legacy act, which expanded the original law that dates to the 1920's.

Some supporters say that these benefits incentivize military participation and help repay the service to veterans and their families.

But universities, who pay most Hazlewood-related costs, say the law pushes steep costs to tuition-paying families. At the University of Houston, for example, non-Hazlewood students pay $186 each to fund the program, which predominately supports veterans’ children, each year, President Renu Khator said at the hearing.

Right now, the Hazlewood Act can benefit those who have served in active duty for 181 days, a figure that university officials urged lawmakers to increase. Committee members and panelists stressed that they needed better data on how long recipients served before limiting access.

Projections vary on how many students will receive these college benefits in the next decade. Rice University’s Hobby Center for the Study of Texas projects that by 2025, about 61,500 people will use Hazlewood benefits, higher than 2014’s 36,747 students, even though the number of veterans under the age of 50 and their children is expected to decline.

The value of awards increased to $169.1 million in 2014 from $24.7 million in 2009, according to the Legislative Budget Board. From 2012-14, about 80 percent of that increased cost was connected to the rise of legacy exemptions, The Hobby Center found.

 “I have a difficult time supporting the situation,” said University of Texas chancellor Bill McRaven, a retired U.S. Navy four-star admiral.

Rep. Cesar Blanco, who served in the U.S. Navy, said he would be open to the state funding the program. “We owe that to our veterans,” he said. In 2015, House budget-writing committee members also said they would be open to funding the program.

Lawmakers heard some people say they were concerned that limiting the program would reduce the heavy draw of education incentives in military service.

Nearly three-quarters of military recruits said education benefits were a primary reason for enlisting, said National Guard recruiter Jim Carney, who added that he thought that limiting Hazlewood would hurt recruiting and therefore perhaps national security.

“I don’t care where the money comes from. I don’t care if someone grows a tree and gets the money from there. We just need to continue to fund our veterans and their families,” former Rep. Joe Farias told the joint panel of state legisators.

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