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Student veterans sue UNC system alleging military discrimination

Courtesy Hayleigh Perez

Hayleigh Perez, a former Army sergeant who served in Iraq, is pictured with her daughter, Caleigh.

Two student veterans who claim U.S. colleges are profiting from artificially inflated tuition fees by misclassifying the residency status of veterans have filed a federal lawsuit against the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, in part for allegedly engaging in that same practice.

The suit, filed last Thursday in Raleigh, accuses the UNC Board of Governors of discriminating against Iraq War veterans and UNC branch students Hayleigh Perez, 26, and Jason Thigpen, 35, by allegedly failing to provide “adequate services, facilities, resources, and assistance” needed to help the two students transition from war to college.

Perez and Thigpen are seeking $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages from the UNC Board of Governors for allegedly inflicting “profound financial hardship and psychological injuries” to the two veterans within a school system that “advertises and purports itself to be one of the most ‘military friendly’ in the country,” according to the suit. Last month, Perez, who attends UNC Pembroke, became the face of a national, grassroots campaign to stop American universities from stamping student veterans as out-of-state residents — thus forcing them to pay the schools $10,000 more in tuition each academic year — after returning home from combat deployments or other military assignments. (Her Change.org petition asking the UNC System to "stop discriminating against student veterans" has garnered mroe than 147,000 signatures). 

“This is not about money. This is about colleges doing the right thing, doing the legal thing and taking care of these students the way they’re supposed to,” said Thigpen, who attends UNC Wilmington and who has been fighting residency claims for other UNC system student veterans through his organization, the Student Veterans Advocacy Group (SVAG).

UNC officials responded to the suit with an emailed statement: “We believe the University has complied fully with federal and state law and has not discriminated against Ms. Perez or other student veterans.

“To the contrary, UNC has demonstrated a strong commitment to North Carolina's military community,” added Joni Worthington, vice president of communications for the UNC system. “The 2012 UNC Serves Resource Guide provides an extensive campus-by-campus inventory of resources, support staffing, services and initiatives specifically dedicated to support military-affiliated students and their families. We're committed to do even more and continue to make incremental progress as resources allow.”

On Oct. 22, NBC News reported SVAG’s assertion that some 250,000 student veterans — many of them lifelong residents of the states in which they're enrolled — were abruptly dubbed out of-state residents by their colleges and, thus, billed at higher tuition rates, after they were temporarily transferred to other military bases or deployed overseas. The practice has been seen at schools in 38 states, SVAG reported. 

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. 

The student-residency battle “makes up a portion” of the lawsuit, Thigpen said.

But allegations that the UNC system discriminated against Thigpen and Perez are the fundamental underpinnings of the suit, Thigpen added.

In short, the suit describes Thigpen, Perez and other student veterans in the UNC system as a “minority group.” And it alleges that when the plaintiffs each sought assistance from their individual UNC colleges — much like the services and resources provided “to other minority groups such as: African-Americans, LGBT, Hispanics, and women — they’re nearly none offered commensurate with having such high Veteran student populations,” the lawsuit said.

The UNC system included about 10,200 student veterans as of 2011, representing nearly 9 percent of the total undergraduates attending the 16 UNC system schools, according to the lawsuit.

“Had the federal (GI Bill) law not changed last year, would student veterans necessarily have issues with the lack of programs, facilities and resources available for them (in the UNC System)? Yes, they would,” Thigpen said in a phone interview. "But is residency classification one factor that led to this? Definitely.”

When Congress altered the GI Bill and removed tuition coverage for out-of-state residents, that placed a large financial burden on thousands of student veterans, Thigpen said.

Perez, for example, was classified as an out-of-state student by the UNC system after she temporarily accompanied her active-duty husband to Texas following his military transfer. While she was away, Perez said she continued making property tax payments on her North Carolina home. When she returned and enrolled at UNC Pembroke, the school billed her tuition fees at the out-of-state rate, costing her an extra $4,600 for one semester.

“When you have such a drastic change, obviously there’s going to be a much greater need for school services for the thousands of veterans who are attending the UNC system,” Thigpen said. “They are going to need more resources. But by not responding to our numerous requests for changes to the existing veterans’ services, that leads to (our claims of) discrimination and negligence.”

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