Some former soldiers in North Carolina say they've had to fight inconsistencies in how University of North Carolina campuses grant in-state residency for lower tuition.
One soldier said she was accepted by Fayetteville State University as a North Carolina resident but classified as out-of-state by UNC-Pembroke.
At stake is thousands of dollars per semester. Veteran students have been scrambling since last year to prove they are in-state students since cost-cutting changes were imposed on the GI Bill, according to the N.C. Student Veterans Advocacy Group. A year ago, the GI Bill program quit paying out-of-state rates at public colleges and universities.
"Because of the change in federal law, that has become more problematic than it ever was before," said Thom Rakes, chairman of the residency appeal board at UNC-Wilmington. His group hears complaints from students who want to be classified as North Carolina residents.
State and federal lawmakers have been trying to change the laws to help the growing number of former servicemen who are enrolling in college. But their efforts have struggled to gain traction.
Until the government changes its policy, veterans such as Andrew Sammons of Wilmington are among those caught with unexpectedly high tuition bills.
Sammons, who served as a sergeant in the Army in Virginia, knew last year that his family would settle in North Carolina when he left the military this year. He looked forward to attending UNC-Wilmington this fall to study business finance and accounting.
Sammons planned ahead. He and his wife bought a house in Wilmington last summer. The family moved there - he commuted between his post and his new home on weekends.
Sammons said he filed paperwork to change his residency to North Carolina. He began paying North Carolina taxes more than a year ago. He registered to vote here and changed his driver's license to North Carolina.
But when he got his tuition bill in May for the fall semester, it was more than $6,000 higher than he expected. UNCW had classified Sammons as an out-of-state resident.
A semester of tuition and fees at UNCW is about $3,100 for a state resident and about $9,150 for out-of-state students. The GI Bill covers only the $3,100. Sammons was going to have to pay the difference.
"Literally, without being granted in-state, there's no way that I could be able to afford to go to college right now," Sammons said.
He appealed. In June, he gave the school his paperwork and was turned down. He tried again, this time appearing before UNCW's residency appeal board.
"I just presented all my tax information, brought them the HUD statement from my house, car registration, orders, just every single document that I'd already submitted to them," Sammons said.
A short time later, UNCW sent him an email saying it considered him a North Carolinian.
A different story
Hayleigh Perez went through a similar process at UNC-Pembroke but lost.
Perez said she was a sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg when she left the Army in 2009. She had registered to vote here, and she and her husband - also a soldier - had purchased their Hoke County home in 2008.
The military transferred the family to Texas for several years, Perez said, but she still thought she was maintaining her North Carolina residency. She intended to move back and stay.
Her husband got orders that the family would return this past spring. So Perez applied last fall at Fayetteville State University and UNCP with the intent of starting school in January. She needed several classes as prerequisites to enter a physician assistant program.
Both schools accepted her. But while FSU decided Perez was a North Carolina resident, UNCP said she wasn't.
Perez preferred UNCP. She enrolled there and appealed her out-of-state classification, assuming she would win.
Her claim continued into March and ultimately was decided against her by the State Residence Committee, an agency that reviews residency claims after students fail to persuade their college or university to give them the lower tuition.
Perez's GI Bill scholarship covered the in-state portion of her UNCP tuition. She said she borrowed about $4,600 from her family to cover the rest.
Perez had several strikes against her claim to be a North Carolina resident. When her North Carolina driver's license expired, Perez replaced it with a Texas license. Her family vehicles were registered in Texas when the couple bought them there.
She believes that neither Texas nor her birth state of Iowa considered her to be a resident. She thought she was a North Carolinian.
"I was really putting my clout, I guess, in the deed to my home," Perez said. "I just don't understand. What state do I reside in, then? They get my money from my property tax every year."
Now that her husband has moved back to North Carolina with the military, state law says Perez qualifies for in-state tuition. But Perez has transferred to Methodist University in Fayetteville. Her cost is below the GI Bill's cap on benefits for attending private universities.
After Perez's experience at UNCP, she doesn't want to attend a state school.
Privacy laws prevent university administrators from discussing an individual student's case. They said state law sets strict residency standards to ensure that in-state rates are granted only to people who qualify - primarily North Carolina residents and military families stationed here.
Perez was puzzled that FSU gave her in-state tuition while UNCP did not.
"We consider a variety of evidence and no single factor or combination of factors can be considered conclusive evidence of residency," said Roxie Shabazz, FSU's associate vice chancellor for enrollment management and extended education. "Each case is unique and depends on what the student presents at time of application.
"Also, each institution makes its own decision based on the evidence that they have at time of application," Shabazz said. "Residency decisions made at one institution are not binding on another institution."
Rakes, of the UNCW residency appeals board, said UNC schools rely on a 33-page manual that outlines the qualifications. The book goes into detail on matters such as whether the student is a dependant of parents living out of state, how many months a non-dependent student has lived in the state, and various other factors.
Education officials are considering whether to consolidate the residency evaluations under a central authority instead of at individual university and community college campuses, said UNC General Administration spokeswoman Joni Worthington.
State and federal lawmakers are trying to help students like Sammons and Perez enroll without having to worry about whether the schools classify them as North Carolina residents. The state legislature this year considered several bills that would grant veterans in-state tuition. But the key sponsor, who is an Army Reserve officer, wasn't able to persuade enough of his fellow lawmakers to support it.
Fayetteville-area lawmakers plan to try again next year to pass this legislation. Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre of Robeson County, along with North Carolina congressmen G.K. Butterfield and Walter Jones, are pushing legislation to change the GI Bill law so that it covers higher out-of-state rates.
The GovTrack.us federal legislation tracking website estimates that the McIntyre bill has a 5 percent chance of passing before Congress shuts down this year.
By Paul Woolverton, Staff writer
Fayetteville (NC) Observer
September 2, 2012