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Home but not a 'resident': Some student veterans fighting to stay on GI Bill

courtesy of Hayleigh Perez

Hayleigh Perez, a former Army sergeant who served in Iraq, argues that the University of North Carolina system has over-billed by her $4,600 that should have been covered, she contends, by the GI Bill. She is holding her daughter Caleigh.

Some 250,000 student veterans are being forced to pay $10,000 for tuition each academic year because many colleges are misclassifying the residency status of those veterans — often for the schools’ own financial gain — according to a student veterans organization.

The issue centers on a fundamental change to the GI Bill, enacted last year by Congress, which stripped tuition benefits for veterans who attend public schools and who are categorized as out-of-state students. In-state student veterans enrolled at public institutions remain eligible for full tuition coverage under federal law. 

But the financial fallout of the residency crunch is impacting student veterans in about 38 states, including Florida, North Carolina and California, reports the Student Veterans Advocacy Group (SVAG). Many of those same student veterans are lifelong residents of the states in which they’re now enrolled — even owning homes in those states — but their schools stamped them as out-of-state residents after they were temporarily transferred to other military bases, or deployed overseas.

“Many veterans are having to quit school because they can’t afford that $5,000 per semester they have to now pay out of pocket,” said Jason Thigpen, founder and president of SVAG, which is based in North Carolina. Thigpen, a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, is not personally affected by the classification problems. As a U.S. Army sergeant, he earned a Purple Heart medal for combat wounds he sustained in Iraq in 2009.

“This is the first time in the history of the GI Bill that we can’t get the education that we were promised,” Thigpen said. “It’s a debt that’s owed to these services members. Our veterans are just asking what was promised to them — no more, no less.”

Dozens of student veterans, who recently used SVAG to successfully appeal and overturn their out-of-state residency classifications at their colleges, used utility bills and mortgage papers to prove that they are — and have been — living in their home states, Thigpen said.

Despite a similar pile of residency proof, however, student veteran Hayleigh Perez, 26, has failed during several hearings to convince the University of North Carolina that she was fully eligible for GI Bill tuition benefits when she attended UNC Pembroke last spring.

Perez, who was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 2006, legally maintained her residence in Fayetteville, N.C., during a subsequent 15-month deployment to Iraq, she said. When she returned to North Carolina, she got married in that state. In 2008, Perez and her husband bought a home in Hoke County, N.C. and she registered as a voter. In 2009, the U.S. military relocated Perez and her husband to Texas, but the couple continued to pay property taxes on their North Carolina home, she said.

Perez received an honorable discharge from the Army in 2009. Last spring, after her husband was transferred back to North Carolina, Perez enrolled at UNC Pembroke. She was stunned, however, when the school billed her $4,600 for a semester of tuition because she’d been deemed an out-of-state resident — and, thus, ineligible for the GI Bill.

“It is disgraceful,” Perez said. “I was forced to borrow the money for my tuition from family members.”

She filed a grievance with UNC Pembroke, offering as evidence of her residency the property records, her marriage license and her North Carolina voter ID. The school denied her appeal, she said. She ultimately took her case leaders of the UNC school system in Chapel Hill — and met with UNC officials yet again last Tuesday with Thigpen at her side. Once more, she said, her claim was denied. (While the UNC school system is headquartered Chapel Hill, Perez's claim does not involve the system's flagship college, UNC-Chapel Hill). 

NBC News asked UNC to address Perez’s assertion that she should be classified by the school system as an in-state resident. Laura B. Fjeld, a UNC vice president and general counsel, e-mailed a response: “We are not at liberty to offer any details in connection with the case of Ms. Perez because of the privacy protections afforded her under FERPA (the U.S. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).”

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, there are about 5,000 additional student veterans like Perez who are wrongly classified by their colleges as out-of-state residents — and many of those take classes within the UNC system, Thigpen contends. He has personally represented 32 of those students during their hearings to overturn their residency classifications, winning each case, he said. 

courtesy of Hayleigh Perez

Student veteran Hayleigh Perez now attends Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C. Since spring, she's battled the University of North Carolina to reimburse her for $4,600 in tuition she argues she never should have paid under the GI Bill.

On that point, Fjeld responded: “We believe that the (North Carolina) State Residency Manual which governs classification of residency for tuition purposes, is consistent with state and federal law.”

“This isn’t just North Carolina, though,” Perez said. “This has become an issue nationally. People are serving multiple deployments, and to face these kinds of hardships when they get home is crazy.”

Perez knows well the scope of the issue. She posted an online petition at change.org, asking the “UNC Board of Governors” to “Stop Discriminating Against Student Veterans.” Within the petition, she also revealed her situation, point by point. As of Monday evening, more than 143,000 supporters had signed the petition — including people who said they are student veterans experiencing the same residency problems — and tuition bills — in Virginia, Florida and other states.

Why are some colleges such sticklers on the residency disputes filed by student veterans, forcing many to pay out-of-state tuition fees even though they reside in the same state?

If a public college agrees with a student’s assertion that he or she is an in-state resident and, consequently, allowed to attend school tuition-free on the GI bill, the federal government then directly sends the school that tuition payment — in North Carolina, that’s $5,000, on average, per academic year at public institutions, Thigpen said.

If the school holds fast to its ruling that a student veteran should be classified as an out-of-state enrollee, the student must pay the school out of pocket for tuition — in North Carolina, that’s $16,000, on average, per academic year at public colleges, Thigpen said.

“When you multiply that $11,000 difference over just say 5,000 to 10,000 student veterans who are affected by this,” Thigpen said, “you’re talking about over $100 million a year.”

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